Repair Cafés: Fix—With a Little Help from Your Friends

Buy. Use. Break. Toss.

That’s the way life goes for roughly 40 million tons of electronic devices that are discarded every year worldwide. Pretty unsatisfying—considering that many of those devices could stay in use longer if only their owners plucked up their courage to fix them.

True: gadget makers don’t exactly encourage people to take initiative. Besides flooding the market with yearly upgrades, manufacturers often design electronic devices with a built-in breaking point (things like integrated batteries or non-upgradeable components). Worse, most companies don’t release service information to the public, so when it comes to fixing a broken gadget—many would-be repairers find themselves adrift without a paddle.

No fixer is an island. So why not meet up and repair together—with a little “professional” guidance? That’s the idea behind the “Repair Café” movement. Repair Cafés are informal meetings in a relaxed, cosy atmosphere. In those “cafés” owners of broken devices get the help they need to fix their devices from experienced repairers.

What began as the idea of Dutch journalist and blogger Martine Postma in 2009 has led to the establishment of more than 800 Repair Cafés around the world today. More than one-third of repair cafés are located in German-speaking countries (there are some in the United States, too—but not as many).

Repair work at repair cafes
Helping hands: Participants at a Repair Café work their repair muscles. All photos courtesy of Julia Bischoff and Sylvia Keck.

At least three such repair cafés are based in Stuttgart, home to 600,000 people and the capital city of the historically frugal Swabians—which might explain the success of repair cafés in Southern Germany. According to Sylvia Keck—volunteer at one of the repair cafés in Stuttgart—between 60 and 80 persons show up each month for the repair café klatsch, to use the German word. Attendees bring things like household devices, bicycles, and clothes, as well as small electronic devices.That’s where iFixit comes into play—our European headquarters are located just a smartphone’s throw away.

“Repair cafés are usually not geared towards the repair of smaller electronic devices, since people tend to bring their beloved floor lamp or the toaster instead,” explains Matthias Huisken of iFixit Europe. However, increasingly smartphone and tablet owners seek support in the Repair Cafés, too. To fill the gap, iFixit team members regularly volunteer in the Repair Café. “We support the café with tools and parts, as well as providing help in smartphone and tablet repair work,” Matthias says. So, a careless moment with an iPhone doesn’t have to mean hundreds of bucks fewer in your bank account—at least not with a Repair Café around the corner.

iFixit Europe tools used at repair cafes
All photos courtesy of Julia Bischoff and Sylvia Keck.

But let’s face it, sometimes it’s not just about the money. Sometimes, the objects we own are special to us—and that makes the repair experience special, too.

Sylvia remembers: “One day the owner of an old tube radio from the 1930s came in and spent hours with a volunteer helper trying to fix it. Then he got the necessary replacement parts and came back for the next repair cafe. On the third meeting, suddenly music came out of the radio’s loudspeakers and this was something really special for all of us, because it was so awesome that we could make this old device run again.”

Experiences like that change people’s mentality about repair. Because once you open something up and fix it—you want to keep fixing. And you want to make sure that you buy products that can be fixed when they eventually break. We have to fight the spread of throwaway society. Repair Cafés help people discover a new possibility: Buy. Use. Break. Repair.