The Repair Café: bikes, bishop, banana cake and that elusive buzz

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A student with four pairs of ripped jeans, a retired bishop who repairs smartphones, a gardener with a set of broken shears and a man who was homeless for a year who mends bikes — these were among the 80 people who took part in the launch of the Canterbury Repair Café this month.

By 9am last Saturday most of the 16 repairers had arrived at St Stephen’s Church Hall where volunteers from the local WI branch were putting out homemade banana cake, macaroons, sponges and other tasties. As well as hosting the event, the WI brought a team of two seamstresses, a jewellery repairer and a bike guy.

And even those customers who could not get an immediate repair were able to sit down and chat over coffee— like the couple who carried in an Ottoman with a broken leg and need to take it to the next event when their repairer will bring along a specialist part. 

Over the next three hours, a stream of people with broken objects came through the doors. Most of them stayed and chatted — both to the repairers and to others they got mixing with. Repairers would discuss the issues with their clients, like doctors do with patients. For instance, Chris Boucher repaired several items including a food mixer, a soldering iron and a clock. “A lot of repairs are about something that has dislodged and then it is a matter of putting that back without dislodging too many other things,” he says. “It’s about looking at the obvious things firsPeople were glad to understand the issue even when there was no real happy ending in sight.

The diagnosis for Pip’s food mixer, for instance, was that it would never work again and should go into plastics recycling. But she was happy with that. “This is wonderful,” she said as she left. “So many of the small shops that used to repair things have gone.” 

Julie Board of the Women’s Institute was delighted to see “different members of the community coming together”. The WI was a major player in this event — able to contribute skills from crochet to darning that younger people are less likely to have. “It’s nice to showcase things like turning collars on shirts. [By cutting off a frayed collar, and sewing it back on upside down, a sewing expert can make a shirt look new again.] Just think how many shirts have been saved from landfill today!”

In fact, the sewing team was just as innovative as the woodwork group. “It is problem-solving,” says Cathryn. She used a crochet hook to pick up the lost stitches on a woollen hat; and went through an an intricate set of steps to fix the zip on a ‘long sausage’ draft excluder. 

The ceramics team (two guys who had never met before that morning) fixed a figurine whose elegant head had been knocked off and a decanter which had broken into four pieces as well as other simpler items. A general repairs team (two other guys who had been strangers before) mended an array of goods including lamps, the broken arm of a swivel chair, a CD player, an iron and a hifi system.

The two councillors who contributed part of their annual allowance to the Repair Café were delighted to see the venture so busy on its first outing. Pat Edwards and Dave Wilson both spoke of the way items were being recycled and the cost savings for owners. Cllr Edwards also sees wide social benefits: “People shop together and go to cafés together. And here, instead of consuming, they are recycling together.” Cllr Wilson said: “This is cultural change happening. For 40 years people have said ‘Think global, act local’ and — finally — we’ve got it here. There’s obviously an untapped demand out there from people who don’t want to throw things away.”

But were the repairers sacrificing their time or did they get something from it themselves? “It’s rewarding,” says Michael, on the bike repairing team. He had mended three bikes and was glad that he had helped their owners get back in the saddle. He had probably saved those owners about £100 between them that day. Or, more likely, he had enabled them to start cycling again rather than leaving the bikes in the shed. Even though he earnt nothing from it, he seemed to feel richer. “I suffer from depression and I can’t be stuck indoors.” Now living in a hostel, he had been homeless for a year and had come along after Catching Lives told him about the event. 

Keith Bothwell, the main organiser who represents both the Canterbury Climate Action Partnership and the Canterbury Society, sees far more benefit in the venture than the 50 or more items that left the Church Hall working or wearable again: “People are making lots of connections with each other.”

There was a buzz that most people seemed to feel. I was on the door and spoke to 20 customers and repairers as they were leaving. We had that sense of strength together that footballers have: we were part of something bigger than ourselves that made us all better. 

* The Repair Café is in its early stages but hopes to run monthly for most of the year. The next outing will be on Saturday, 25 April at the Hub Café in the Baptist Church Hall on St George’s Place (opposite Waitrose), between 10am and 12 noon. There will also be a clothes swap. All are welcome. Please email canterburyrepaircafe@gmail.com if you would like to be involved as a repairer or organiser. 

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