Tools of the Future

If it’s broken, Dan Hettinger will help you fix it.
Portrait by Matt Rose

As a consumerist society, we have developed into a throwaway culture of staggering proportions, and Repair Café encourages a paradigm reversal through repairs. It provides community solutions to restoring dysfunctional personal items — anything from malfunctioning bicycles to faulty zippers. The intention of revitalizing rather than discarding and replacing defines the mission of Repair Café and its value on educating its participants in self-sufficiency and waste reduction.

The first Repair Café was hosted in Amsterdam in 2009, and within almost 10 years, it has become a global phenomenon. To date, there are nearly 50 continually operating cafés in the United States, not including standalone events like those at Mills River’s Living Web Farms, which hosts four repair events a year.

According to Living Web’s Dan Hettinger, what distinguishes their WNC Repair Café is its location. Living Web is an education and research nonprofit that practices organic agriculture and teaches homesteading and DIY skills. Unlike some repair cafés held in public spaces, where liability issues and space limitations might be a factor, “we’re able to take on heavier work — small-engine tuneups, tool sharpening, welding repairs and the like because we’re equipped for that,” he explains. As manager of the farm’s auxiliary Biochar Facility — where charcoal is used as a carbon-negative soil amendment — Hettinger orchestrates and hosts each Repair Café on site, with plenty of tools, spare parts, and well-lit workbenches.

Photo by Matt Rose

“We love the model for Repair Café because it encourages a resilient mindset,” adds Living Web Farms’ marketing director, Meredith Leigh. “Mainstream America mostly sends stuff to the landfill when it breaks, but having a gathering like this offers a more sustainable option and can begin to alter people’s way of thinking about resources.”

While the operation of these cafés varies by location and emphasis, the underlying “learning by doing” mentality harmonizes with the neighborhood feel of shared problem solving. July’s event was a success; 30 people were helped with more than 40 repairs. Over the course of the farm’s first three cafés, Hettinger has noticed a remarkable turnaround of broken objects. “We’ve seen a roughly 80% successful repair rate,” he reports. “If it can be fixed, we’ll do our best. If it needs parts, we’ll do our best to locate them.”

Participants in past cafés include Katia “Sky” Simonov. Her resourcefulness was instilled at an early age by her family’s sustainable living in Ukraine. “My father and brother knew how to do everything when it came to fixing things. There was never a ‘call someone to come fix this’ in our lives,” she says. Instead, they fixed and repurposed.

Because of Simonov’s lifelong “reuse and recycle” approach, Repair Café holds great significance to her. “To me, the Repair Café is an extension of how I was raised — making things work more than once rather than throwing goods away into dumps. I so love that this exists in my community.” For her, learning alongside knowledgeable repairers is an enriching experience. Sometimes the right parts aren’t available for a particular item, but she even marvels at successful attempts.

The volunteers who facilitate repairs are as crucial to the café as the participation of its attendants.“I’m impressed by how many talented volunteers are willing to share their skills,” says Hettinger. “It’s a challenge, because often we don’t know what people are going to bring in during these events, but I think they appreciate this challenge.”

Living Web Farms staff has been instrumental too, he stresses. “Evan Morrow and Chris Nolan help organize each event and are both skilled repairmen. Rocco Sinicrope helps with signups and assists our volunteers with tricky repairs.” Hettinger also boasts the cooking skills of Patryk Battle, Living Web Farms’ director who bakes in-season goodies for each café.

Among the volunteers is Tom Cramer, who’s been a part of the café since its inception. “So many discarded items usually only need to be cleaned and oiled to get them back in service,” he says. His hope is that, through Repair Café, he can restore frequently-brought-in household items such as broken chairs or lamps that their owners were convinced couldn’t be fixed.

“For some repairs, I just hand tools to the client and suggest how to take the thing apart and discuss what we will look for inside,” he adds. “Just taking something apart and exploring inside is fun. A repair is more rewarding than solving a Rubik’s Cube.”

Top Left: Sky Simonov
Attendees from July’s repair café demonstrate the interactive process. There’s no end of small appliances and personal items that can potentially be fixed, and Living Web Farms’ advantage is having lots of space to store tools and other equipment.
Photos by Matt Rose

 

The next WNC Repair Café, hosted by Living Web Farms at its Biochar Facility (220 Grandview Lane, Hendersonville), happens Tuesday, Oct. 16, 5-8pm. Walk-ins are welcome, but online signups are preferred so volunteers can provide proper tools. The events are donation-based, with proceeds devoted to repair equipment. To sign up for repairs, inquire about volunteering opportunities, and for more information, see livingwebfarms.org/wncrepaircafe.

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