Why can’t we fix things anymore?

A pop-up repair shop in New York suggests there's a way to end the break-it-and-buy-it cycle

Topics: Repair Shop, Reclamation, sustainability, Green, Landfill, Community Intiative, , ,

This article originally appeared on OnEarth.org.

OnEarth Kristin Murphy spent two years listening to a portable radio that, thanks to a broken antenna, delivered only AM broadcasts. A Columbia University PhD student and a self-professed news junky, she refused to buy a new one, but she lacked the tools to fix hers. So when she learned this past spring that a pop-up repair shop would be opening in her northern Manhattan neighborhood, she was thrilled. “I thought the idea was brilliant,” she says. “I began collecting broken things in my head.”

When the store opened in June, sandwiched between a hair salon and a pizza joint in a former pharmacy, a line of customers stretched out the door. Soon the storefront, which started with the clean and organized look of an Apple Genius Bar, resembled a theater workshop on opening night. Spools of thread and wire, boxes of nuts and screws, glue guns, paint brushes, screwdrivers, vice grips, and clamps littered the counters. Customers milled around work benches and the sewing machine, eagerly sharing stories about their broken stuff, all under the gaze of a patron saint of handiness: MacGyver.

The first item Murphy dropped off was that radio: within days she was enjoying FM stations again. Next, she delivered a backpack with a torn seam, a broken window blind, an iPod that wouldn’t turn on, a broken headlamp, and a second radio. Each was handily fixed, for a total cost of less than $75, by Sandra Goldmark and Michael Banta, veteran professionals who teach and produce theater at Barnard College and between them can handle carpentry, electrical work, rigging, welding, drafting, painting, sewing, and model making.

For Goldmark and Banta, the Pop-Up Repair Shop was equal parts performance art, sustainability initiative, research project, and social activism.  “We were fed up with buying things and throwing them away, both in the theater and at home, and we wanted to see if others felt the same way,” Goldmark told me. Would people bring in their broken household goods? If so, why, and how much did they value such repairs? With a grant from Barnard, they conducted detailed surveys of their customers, tracking both the level of demand for, and the response to, a community repair shop.



Nationwide, repair businesses—except for those that handle computers—have been in decline for decades. Before World War II, for example, the country had more than 100,000 shoe repair shops; now there are roughly 7,000. The Bureau of Labor Statistics includes small-appliance repair on its list of disappearing jobs. “And I see no trend in them coming back,” says Neil Seldman, president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, a nonprofit that advocates for environmentally sound and equitable community development. “Manufacturers make products unrepairable. They don’t sell parts because they don’t want people to repair their products.” They want them to buy new stuff.

Although it’s not part of the well-known triad, “repair” partners with “reuse” in the reduce, reuse, recycle hierarchy—and it’s a better option than recycle when it comes to the environment. Why? Because when we repair, we don’t buy new stuff. No matter how “green” it claims to be, manufacturing new stuff almost always requires more energy and materials, and has a greater impact on the environment, than continuing to use something that already exists. Repair also generates less air and water pollution than recycling, leaves behind less hazardous waste, and creates an affordable supply of high-quality goods for those unable to afford new things.

Still, communities trying to shrink the amount of garbage they pile up in landfills routinely give reuse and repair short shrift. They do far less public education on reuse and repair, a retail message, than on recycling, which addresses discards in a wholesale manner.

Consciously or not, Goldmark and Banta were joining thousands of others in urban pockets around the world who, empowered by repair cafes and collectives and downloadable fixer manuals, were reclaiming their stuff, jumping off the break-it-and-buy-it treadmill, and taking a quiet stand for the environment. “The number one thing we’re up against is the cheap price of new goods,” Goldmark told me. “They’re artificially cheap because they don’t include the environmental costs—air and water pollution, for example—of extracting raw materials, manufacturing, or distribution.”

Low wages in developing nations also keep prices low, as do government subsidies for extracting resources like wood, oil, and gas. People would be far less likely to buy new products if the price tags of those goods reflected their true cost. Consumers would also demand more from manufacturers whose products prematurely fail, and they might be more willing to pay repair people a living wage.

Over the course of four weeks, Goldmark and her colleagues were pleasantly surprised to serve roughly 200 people and repair more than 450 objects. The largest category was lamps, but the staff also worked its magic on vacuum cleaners, coffee makers, fans, jewelry, textiles, telephones, trophies, furniture, stuffed animals, and a cracked two-and-a-half-foot-long plastic ladle—a tchotchke nonpareil that Goldmark handily repaired with a small metal plate and a bolt. The couple’s only failures? A mini-fridge and some remote-controlled cars.

The shop—which charged between $20 and $40 for most jobs—lost money because Goldmark and Banta kept prices artificially low to lure in customers. They wanted to get across an idea, not make a profit. In fact, they were experimenting with pricing, asking the first 25 customers to pay what they thought was right. If Kristin Murphy had come in toward the end of the shop’s tenure, she likely would have paid $40 to have her blinds repaired and more than $15 for the radio.

“If we did this again,” Goldmark said, “we’d trim our staff and charge more, but not too much. We still want to keep it affordable.” She would also ask customers to take another crucial step: “I’d give them a piece of paper so they can write to the manufacturer of the broken coffee pot” to express their dissatisfaction. After all, if we don’t let companies know we’re unhappy—and unlikely to buy their products in the future—we can’t blame them for continuing to turn out crap.

Perhaps the most valuable—if subversive—lesson of the pop-up shop is that we, as consumers, have options: when something breaks, we don’t have to throw it away. By this measure alone, the shop was hugely successful. It kept more than a ton of stuff out of the landfill, and it encouraged customers to get involved not only with repair, but with other like-minded people.

Some of those folks hung around for hours—Goldmark told me with admiration in her voice—learning new skills and gaining the confidence to try them out. Then, under the spell of MacGyver, they went home and tackled their own repairs.

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