Talking trash with Toronto Repair Cafe organizer Paul Magder
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The Toronto Reference Library hosted a repair café this weekend. Instead of throwing things away as soon as they’re broken, people were encouraged to bring them to the café, where they could have everything from old shoes to iPads fixed by volunteers.
Organizers Paul Magder and Wai Chu Cheng have been holding such events in Toronto for more than a year. Torstar News Service spoke to Magder about future plans for expanding the café and some of the strangest things people have brought in.
Where did the idea come from?
A woman in Holland, maybe four or five years ago, was getting fed up with all the garbage that was piling up everywhere and all the broken things. So she came up with this idea and now it has spread all over the world.
How does it work exactly?
It’s a learning approach. You don’t just drop your stuff off. You have to sit with the person fixing it and you can either do the whole thing yourself or assist with our repair, or just observe it.
The next thing is learning about how things are made and how things are put together. . . When you buy something you should look at that. Can it be fixed?
What kind of things can people have fixed?
The volunteers are called fixers. They have skills in different areas. We have people that can fix electronics, computers, iPads, tablets and phones. We have people that can fix appliances, small appliances like lamps and toasters, and sometimes even umbrellas, things around the house.
And then we have sewers and jewelry people who repair jewelry. In the summer we have a bike repair person and we also have a bookbinder.
It’s different people with different skills.
What’s the purpose of the café?
There are many. The first one is the obvious one, to prevent things from going into the garbage. We want people to change their attitude from a throw-away society to a fix-it society.
The next big thing is to show people that they can actually repair things themselves. Most of the people are volunteers who fix things. They don’t fix things for a living. This is something that they just enjoy doing and they like to demonstrate to other people that they can do it as well.
The community spirit that it creates is really exhilarating. People just love it. It’s a café, so we also have coffee and pastries and so on. People just come and hang out and watch what’s going on and meet other people. It’s a great community activity and really promotes cohesion.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen someone bring it?
We had this amazing telephone. It was a Scooby-Doo telephone. It was based on this TV character and it had all these incredible mechanisms so that when the phone rang they would start shaking and shivering and the phone sounded like a ghost.
It was broken and we took it apart . . . and it turned out one of the gears was damaged. They’re all plastic parts, so the woman who brought it in was actually taking a class at the library on how to use a 3D printer, so she was going to take that plastic part and go and redesign it and make a new one.
We have a guy who brings a 3D printer. And the idea is that if you have a part that’s broken you can make a new one.
Why do you think people have this impulse just to throw away stuff?
For one thing, when you look at something it’s very daunting to even figure out how it opens up. A lot of things are designed not even to be fixed.
The people that make stuff have promoted this idea that it’s cheap — why fix it? In fact, it’s usually more expensive to get something fixed than it is to buy a new one.
There aren’t even that many places around that fix things anymore, repair shops. It’s very difficult for people to figure out how to fix something even if they wanted to.
You wouldn’t usually expect to be able to take your broken toaster to the library. How is the Toronto Public Library involved?
The library approached us because they are trying to transform the library services. Especially the Toronto Reference Library has created this digital hub where they have 3D printers and scanners and other types of services. They were interested in us being a part of the original opening when they opened the digital hub last year. [The library] is trying to evolve into providing other types of community services.
What other cities have repair cafés?
In Holland they are in multiple cities and they have them in the U.K. as well. There’s one in Calgary that started before us. People came to see ours and then started one in Peterborough and I believe one just started in Nanaimo, B.C. In the U.S. there’s a few. There’s one in Palo Alto (Calif.) that’s a huge one.
What are your future plans for the café?
We really want to expand the repair cafés so we have as many areas of the city with these events. But we can’t do it all ourselves. We’re trying to promote other people to start them.
One of the things I would really like to do is to get kids involved in fixing things. I’ve had contacts from a middle school in Toronto, who want to do a repair café and that’s a really big breakthrough. They would also learn how to fix things.
The other area is trying to get into old-age homes, where there must be incredible resources of talent, skill and knowledge. I haven’t been able to crack that one yet. It’s hard for them (residents) to get out. But it would be a great place to have an event and have people from outside the home coming in to get things fixed.
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