Tinkerers unite at inaugural Repair Café We're a throwaway society. How do you turn that battleship around?

Jan 04 2017 | 11:51 AM

“Are you going to the fix-it shop?,” asked a woman with snow-white hair in a European accent. She was carrying a small parcel wrapped in paper, oh so gingerly, to her car. “They’re wonderful,” she said.

I unloaded the child-sized wooden chair that my infant likes to ride like a rodeo bull. The chair, an estate sale find, was losing all of its spindles at once.

“It’ll fix,” said Edwin Winstanley. Winstanley, a retired clinical chemist, was one of 10 repair coaches who’d volunteered to spend the day fixing other people’s broken stuff at Warwick’s first Repair Café. Indeed, with a little wood glue and elbow grease, the chair was like new.

Why spend a beautiful weekend day indoors, working gratis? “I just enjoy tinkering,” said Winstanley, 74. “It keeps me off the street.”

About 40 “customers” showed up at the Doc Fry Community Center that day, lugging torn jeans, a desk cycle, a Casio keyboard, an iPad, a paper shredder, baskets, about 100 knives in need of sharpening, and 23 lamps.

The force behind the phenomenon is Elizabeth Knight. A former visual merchandiser for a chain of department stores, Knight, of Warwick, might currently be described as a recycling evangelist.

Reading about a Repair Café in Beacon, she took a lamp with a wonky switch and drove over. She saw teenage boys learning to fix an electric guitar, a Japanese exchange student hemming his plaid pants, a kid sifting through a button jar to find an eye for his teddy bear.

Knight was sold. She started looking for volunteers to be repair coaches — and looking. “I did a lot of slogging,” said Knight. She wrote letters to churches, talked to senior groups, put up fliers all over town.

At the last minute, it looked like they might have only four or five coaches. “I didn’t think I had enough to pull it off,” Knight said. “I said, ‘You know, I’m going to do it anyway, see what happens.’”

Then an ad appeared in the local paper, and Knight started getting calls, like from Barbara Barron, who works at the school district bus depot. Growing up, Barron used to work on rare lamps at her mother’s shop, Oriental Horizons, in Ramsey, NJ. “I find comfort, I guess, in fixing things,” she said. “I called Liz and said, ‘What’s up?’”

Days later, Barron was sitting at a round table, tinkering with an art deco lamp with four sphinxes surrounding the socket. “It’s kooky,” she laughed. The lamp’s owner sat across the table from her.

“I like a lot of Egyptian things,” said Joe Mazza, who inherited the lamp from a recently deceased uncle. “You would never be able to find that.”

An import from Amsterdam, Repair Cafés are held in rent-free locations. There’s a donation jar, whose contents, after the first café, contained $185, almost enough to cover the cost of the parts and the pizza. One worry that Knight has heard is that the Café will take business from local merchants. But it can also be a way for fixers to connect with potential customers.

“I don’t mind giving back to the community — although I live in Monroe,” said “Fix-It Bob” Berkowitz, who paused tinkering on a lamp to hand me a business card. “Really, I enjoy it. Plus the fact that I have an opportunity to showcase what I do.”

Warwick’s Repair Café, which will be a bimonthly event, is the first in the county, but the eighth in the Hudson Valley. That gives this neck of the woods the distinction of hosting the highest concentration of Repair Cafés in the U.S. Find one near you at repaircafehv.org.



said John Wackman, who brought the concept to New Paltz in 2013. The New Paltz Repair Café features high school-aged digital fixers, coffee, tea and baked goods, and a supervised take-it-apart table where kids can tinker. A program manager for Solarize Hudson Valley, Wackman sits at the woodworking table when he can.

“The purpose of the repair café has many layers,” he said. “Certainly one is to reduce the amount of stuff that goes into the landfill. We’re a throwaway society. How do you turn that battleship around? But as a community building project, it is as good as they come.”