About two years ago, Paul Magder, the co-founder of Toronto’s Repair Cafe, said a man came to one of their events with an old transistor radio that was his last possession of his deceased mother.
It wasn’t a difficult fix. The sound crackled thanks to dirty contacts, but it was clear after Magder cleaned them off.
And even though this was a minor repair for the retired electronic technologist, now 62, it meant a lot to the man whose transistor radio was up and running, just like he remembered.
“He was so appreciative of being able to fix it,” Magder told Yahoo Finance Canada.
“That was first time somebody had said something like that … it was really heartwarming. I felt really happy that I was able to help the person — it sort felt like ‘yeah, this is what it is all about.’”
Magder along with his with his wife Fern Mosoff, a 63-year-old retired civil servant, and Wai Chu Cheng founded Toronto’s Repair Cafe nearly four years ago.
It is part of a growing chain of these hubs designed to prevent fixable items from ending up in the landfill, while sharing skills and bringing communities together.
The initiative was first started by former journalist Martine Postma in Amsterdam in 2009 and it has since spread to more than 1,100 sites across nearly 30 countries.
Repair Cafe Toronto holds one major repair event at a variety of locations, often public libraries, every month except December over the course of the year. They also host more than a dozen smaller “mini cafes” at community hubs.
Patrons are invited to bring in their broken household items – commonly things like lamps, blenders, hair dryers and zippers, according to Magder, but also computers, jewelry, bikes and other electronics – and to sit down with a volunteer “fixer” who won’t just repair them, but also show them how to do it themselves – at no cost.
“There’s people who have things that, you know, you might not think much of, but they really treasure, and sometimes they’ve kept them for years in their basement – they couldn’t throw them out – and they bring them and we breathe life back into them,” said Magder.
“And when they come to the event they don’t just hand it over to our volunteers. We encourage them … We’re there to show them how to do it, so we have the machines or we do things by hand, but they’re the ones that actually do the repair.”
As a retired electronic technologist, Madger helps with home electronics and computers, while Mosoff mostly helps organizing events but can “pinch hit” on clothing repairs.
When an item can’t be fixed, but is worth paying for, volunteers will make recommendations about where to take them.
But for the most part they can be; Magder estimated that they repair between 60 and 80 per cent of the items that are brought in.
That’s great news for guests, many whom Mosoff said don’t have money or space for tools to make the repairs on their own.
The organization said it helped fix 877 items and prevented 1,005 from ending up in a landfill last year alone. In total, Repair Cafe said it has diverted 3,079 items since 2013.
It also said it taught 966 visitors to repair their broken items in 2016, including a record 150 people who showed up at their last event in January.
Bringing back a lost art
Sharing new skills, in particular, is a point of pride for Magder and Mosoff who remember learning sewing, welding and woodworking in classes such as shop and home economics in school.
But many of these talents have become lost arts, according to the pair.
Magder recalled speaking to students at an engineering conference at the University of Toronto who had never used a screwdriver.
“When we were growing up in school we used to have things we could do with our hands but people don’t anymore … so there’s a lot of skills being lost,” he said.
“So this is a way of invigorating interest and capacity.”
Mosoff said one of the goals is to teach the youth of today who often lack the knowledge to open something up and fix it, or have what she called the mindset of a “throwaway society.”
But attendees of Repair Cafe aren’t just youth in search of new skills, Mosoff said its events attract people across all ages and backgrounds.
It now also boasts a volunteer database of more than 400 people, 80 of whom make up the active core.
Repair Cafe also has an apprenticeship program that helps volunteers who want more practice or aren’t that confident in their skills sit down alongside a veteran fixer.
While it has no plans to settle into a permanent “cafe” because of a lack of funds, Mosoff said the doors at its events across the city will remain open to visitors looking for a helping hand or, of course, a free coffee or tea.
“Everyone is awestruck when they come.” said Mosoff.
“It has a great vibe. It has a buzz of all these people working together. There’s a congenitally that is special.”
The next Toronto event is taking place March 18. For more information visit the Repair Cafe Toronto website.