The Repairers

Text — Margarett Waterbury
Photos — Nolan Calisch

Things break all the time—in fact, nowadays, consumer items are built to break. And most of us have only been trained to do one thing when they do: sigh, toss the item in the trash, and buy again.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. A small but growing global community of repairers is assembling to embrace that special satisfaction that comes from fixing something instead of throwing it out. A Dutch journalist launched the first Repair Café in Amsterdam in 2009 as a response to a world overwhelmed by garbage. Since then, the movement has spread globally via clinics, fairs, and events. People are coming together to fix their stuff, learn new skills, and tap into the innate human drive to make things work.

People who bring items for fixing often find themselves more absorbed in the repair process than they’d originally expected. “I’m really enjoying the learning aspect of this,” said one participant. “And I love the kind of village feel of it.”

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It is a philosophy that is both revolutionary and familiar. For most of our history, humans have been makers, menders, and repairers by necessity. But in the last century, our capacity to fix things has fallen prey to the seductive pull of consumer convenience. Products that were once intended to last lifetimes are now forced into obsolescence after just a few months. After all, a brand new replacement is only one or two clicks away.

People are encouraged to watch and participate in their item’s repair. “People call it a café, because that’s what it is,” said volunteer repairer Kimi Feuer. “For somebody who will go through the whole process, it can be a really eye-opening experience.”

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“I really like coming to repair fairs,” said volunteer repairer Tom, a former engineering manager at a high-tech manufacturer in the Portland suburbs. “You meet so many people, and the other repairers are really friendly.” Tom said he doesn’t do detailed electronics, but he’ll attempt almost anything mechanical, and furniture.

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One thriving repair community in Portland, Oregon, holds several repair fairs every month, each drawing dozens of attendees toting their broken clocks, their busted bikes, and their suitcases that won’t roll. Volunteer repairers span a wide range of ages, backgrounds, and walks of life. Some are motivated by a desire to reduce waste; others relish the unique challenge posed by every broken item. And others say the most rewarding part isn’t the moment when the lamp flickers on again, but the feeling of rebuilding their community and local economy around the radical act of repair.

Repair PDX recently won a grant to start offering repair education for people who want to learn how to repair things themselves. Organizer Lauren Gross has started matching high school students with skilled repairers in a kind of apprenticeship program. She’s also planning a program for middle-schoolers to introduce them to tools, troubleshooting, and the joys of taking things apart. “Our whole goal is to spread repair culture,” said Gross.

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Margarett Waterbury is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about food, drink, agriculture, and culture. Her work has appeared in Food and Wine, Civil Eats, Edible Portland, and other publications. When not writing, she enjoys cooking, gardening, and walking long distances.


Nolan Calisch
is a photographer and artist interested in social and personal efforts of reconciliation, and regeneration. Since 2007 he has tended an organic farm outside Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his partner, artist Nina Montenegro, and their daughter.

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