For Going Green
They arrived with wobbly wooden chairs and old lamps in need of TLC. There was a busted bread maker, a television on the fritz, a crock pot with a bad cord, an old motor that a new owner hoped to repurpose on an edger.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, the community room at Amherst’s Hitchcock Center for the Environment began to look like the Island of Misfit Housewares, as people showed up with items in need to repair. Ready to meet them — tool kits and sewing machine and replacement cords at the ready — were the volunteers of Repair Public, a sort of DIY fix-it clinic with a simple mission that nonetheless feels revolutionary in our disposable culture: to encourage people to fix things when they break rather than toss them and buy replacements. Its tag line: “Community through Fixery.”
Ben Gagnon founded Repair Public in 2017 (the group recently celebrated its “First Year Annifixery” with a benefit event for Habitat for Humanity) after learning about Repair Café, a similar nonprofit based in the Netherlands with a network of about 1,500 sites across the world. The idea appealed to Gagnon, who’s always had mechanical aptitude and a desire “to make or fix the things that help other people,” he said. While he loves his day job in IT, he said, “At the end of the day, it’s just moving clever patterns of ones and zeroes around. I wanted to touch something physical for a change. … Sometimes you just want to hit a thing with a hammer.”
Gagnon quickly found his friends were eager to help him in the effort, including Nathan Hobbs, owner of Greenfield’s Seymour, the Pub, which hosted the inaugural Repair Public event. Repair Public now hosts monthly events, rotating among several sites around the region.
The premise is simple: community members show up with their broken items, and the volunteers — “repair facilitators,” in Repair Public parlance — help them fix those things. “Help” is the key word; while the facilitators are there to provide suggestions and expertise, Gagnon said, ideally, the people coming to the event take part in the repair process and leave empowered to try things like that on their own at home. “It demystifies the fixing process,” he said. “Some people just need a little push to get over their intimidation and open something up.”
Indeed, participants at a Repair Public event sign a form agreeing to at least try to take part in the work. (“We promise it won’t be scary,” the form assures.) The form also includes a liability waiver and a promise not to bring in anything dangerous, such as toxic or flammable materials. If a repair can’t be completed during an event, the facilitator will put together a homework sheet with instructions so the participant can finish it on their own.
Repair Public doesn’t do a lot of work on large appliances, and it won’t work on computers; in both cases, Gagnon said, there are plenty of places in the Valley to get that kind of work done. “We don’t want to compete with local businesses.” The group will tune up bicycles, but it won’t do repairs on high-end bikes that require specialized tools.
So what do people bring to the clinics? Small kitchen appliances are common, as are lamps. The group has fixed lawnmowers, chainsaws, and snow blowers. At its first event, three people brought in old turntables. Repair facilitators have tackled a 1960s short-wave radio, a water carbonation machine, a leaky air mattress, a portable electronic keyboard that someone found in a dumpster, and what Gagnon calls “the espresso machine from hell.” At one event, they fixed a broken sewing machine, then put it to work mending torn clothing brought in by participants “That was sort of a meta-repair,” Gagnon said.
At the Hitchcock event, Jackie Burkett of South Hadley brought in an ornate, 1930s-era table lamp that’s been in her family for years. She wanted to make sure the wiring was in good shape, she said, and to get some help reattaching a decorative piece that had broken off the body. As repair facilitator John Castorino (who, when he’s not volunteering at Repair Public, teaches molecular biology at Hampshire College) guided her through the process, showing her how to mix the epoxy to reattach the piece, Burkett took careful notes.
Across the room, repair facilitator Jill Messick of Agawam stood ready with her sewing machine. In her time with Repair Public, she said, she’s hemmed a tablecloth, fixed torn pockets, and helped people finish projects they started and abandoned when they became too challenging. At one event, she said, she gave a basic sewing-machine tutorial to a man who’d inherited his mother’s machine but didn’t know how to use it. While Messick comes from a handy family — she grew up working in her father’s hardware store — she knows that for many people, DIY can be scary, and she enjoys helping them get past that fear.
Repairs are all free, although participants are encouraged to make a donation based on the complexity of their project; in most cases, Gagnon says, that comes to about $5. Repair Public’s operating costs are low, thanks in large part to the fact that the event hosts donate their spaces for free.
Casey Beebe, Hitchcock Center’s community program and special projects manager, said that her organization was eager to support Repair Public, because of its values — reducing waste and unnecessary consumption; educating and empowering people; building a sense of community — are so in keeping with Hitchcock’s mission.
That community-based aspect is as important as the more tangible work of Repair Public. “Getting out to meet strangers, to accomplish a common goal, is an incredibly powerful thing,” Gagnon said. It’s also a chance to appreciate others’ talents that we might not normally know about, he added.
“We don’t see each other perform the skills we have. … Whenever we engage in community events, we see each other at our best.”Attend a Repair Public clinic near you
Repair Public will host an event at Seymour, the Pub, 5 Bank Row in Greenfield, on Sunday, May 27, from 1 to 4:30 p.m. Check for other upcoming dates and more information at repairpublic.org or on the Repair Public Facebook page.