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Repair Café Restores Items, and Good Cheer, for Free

Got a stool with a broken leg? A beloved lamp with a faulty switch? At Repair Café Pasadena, they can fix it.
And if they can’t? Well, you can both have fun trying.
This past weekend, about 200 local neighbors did just that, lugging in an item in need of repair despite the rain, buzzing with good cheer and chatter that filled the first floor of the Armory Center for the Arts. Some 30 people at a time stood in line to sign in and register their item, and while waiting, browsed the “Really, Really Free Market,” picked up a free plant and saw all the other items they might bring for repair in the future, like a shirt with a torn sleeve or some knives to sharpen.
Repair Café Pasadena is a bimonthly community event that links local handymen and women (“tinkers and stitchers”) to folks needing repairs — for free — for all kinds of household goods, including clothing, appliances, bikes, furniture, electronics, kitchen tools and more. Based on the philosophy of a gift economy, the Repair Café will keep household items working and out of the landfill, contributing to a zero-waste mentality. Volunteers range from engineers at JPL to scientists at Caltech to designers in the movie industry, but they all have two things in common: They are ecologically minded and they love to fix things.
“We’re just grass-roots volunteers trying to encourage people to reuse and recycle and keep them from just throwing things away,” said Repair Café volunteer organizer Evan Hilgemann, a JPL mechanical engineer, who for recent events has found himself repairing bicycles with another friend or two. “I suppose you could say that in my downtime I have an unhealthy disposition to take things apart and see how they work, though putting them back together is the challenging bit. Some things come apart and it’s an easy fix, other times we’ll play with something for the full three hours and still can’t fix it.”
But still, they’ll give it their best shot, he noted.
And while waiting for the repair, visitors can get a cup of coffee, some free breakfast, a new book from the market or even a massage, a Reiki cleansing or a haircut.

OUTLOOK photos Joining the small army of volunteer repair artists, the “stitchers” can repair just about any clothing item.
OUTLOOK photos
Joining the small army of volunteer repair artists, the “stitchers” can repair just about any clothing item.

Babette Strousse, who brought an electric label maker to the event, was taking it back home after the tinkers were unable to find its fault. A proud DIY-er, she said she would break out her own tools at home to have another go at it. Still, she happily browsed the event and enjoyed the cheerful company.
“I think this is really cool, I like this idea of circular sharing,” said Strousse, who was visiting her first Repair Café event. “When I can give things away I like to do that … I’m a designer so for us, it’s a struggle sometimes because we like to create new things, but I feel like this balances it out by keeping as many things in the system as you can.”
Run under the larger community advocacy group Transition Pasadena, founded in 2010 to focus on building resilient communities in light of climate change, Repair Café sprang up as an idea from Transition Pasadena co-founder Therese Brummel, who read about another Repair Café. The movement has since gone international, hosted by groups who consider themselves grass-roots activists fighting for a relatable approach to environmentalism.
“It has grown tremendously,” said Repair Café organizer Ginko Lee. “All these people really have an ‘It takes a village’ mentality. Instead of just telling people how to reduce waste or go do something for the environment, this is a way to really show how joyful it is to do that while making it a greater community effort. … There’s so much abundance, by not talking at people or preaching but just showing them how it can work makes a deeper impression.”
Lee, a graphic designer, initially joined the group to help with the logo, but loved the concept and slowly was pulled into organizing. A graduate student in Taiwan at the moment, Lee has helped initiate a Repair Café there as well, and said it has been enormously well received. Pushing the movement forward is a common theme among the group of volunteers, who all lend their talent in whatever way they can. At the most recent event, those who didn’t tinker were helping to organize the items for repair or help guide the line of people waiting.
Stephen Welich, a masseur, helped begin the “wellness corner” at Pasadena’s Repair Café.
“I bring my chair and my hands and some of my oils. … I think it’s really important to give back, and this is how I do it,” he said. “It’s imperative that we act as a community and treat everybody as extended family — if everyone did that, the environment and society would be a better place.”

Repair Café volunteer Jennifer LaPlante gives out free seedlings and advice on how to grow thriving plants at her gardening table.
Repair Café volunteer Jennifer LaPlante gives out free seedlings and advice on how to grow thriving plants at her gardening table.

Jennifer LaPlante was manning another table that overflowed with greenery: aloe vera plants, herbs, seedlings, seeds and soil. She chatted with passersby and encouraged them to take a free cactus or woodland strawberry plant. The plant table was begun by a friend who founded Throop Garden, an award-winning community garden also run under the Transition Pasadena umbrella. A business executive by day, LaPlante said she has a large native garden and “an altruistic jag,” and enjoys sharing her knowledge.
“I’ve met a lot of people who’ve never grown anything who will pick something up here, and then I’ll meet them again at another event and they tell me, ‘It’s still alive!’ and they’ll pick up something else,” she said. “I find it really rewarding, and it’s just fun.”
Further down, another volunteer sat with a microscope to sample soil. She could tell gardeners what their dirt might be missing. Another table held a small group of volunteers patiently sharpening knives, and at another, a small group bent their heads together over the back of a microwave. At some of the Repair Café events, a pianist brings his instrument by bicycle — using a custom-made trailer of sorts — and plays classical music.
“Isn’t this fun?” asked Ann Turner, who visited the event with her mother and picked up some clover seeds. Hopefully, the ground cover of white and red flowers will help attract some bees for her lavender, she noted. “It’s just a nice weekend outing. I had a skirt to repair that I forgot in my other car, but I’ll bring it next time.”
To learn more about Repair Café’s next event, or to sign up to volunteer with a talent, visit or follow the group on Facebook and Twitter at Repair Café Pasadena.

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