Just what was being fixed at the Repair Cafe?
Jessica Ferree brought in a toaster with a lever that no longer held slices down. Sade Musa had a torn skirt with a sagging elastic band. Jean Prinz hoped to get the blades of her scissors honed and have holes drilled into her compost bins.
Anyone with things in need of TLC is welcome to show up at the free monthly event, and volunteers with a range of skills do their best to get the items back in working order. Together, they reduce waste by not just throwing out the old and buying new.
On a recent Saturday in a Pasadena church hall, several seamstresses sat before sewing machines. Half a dozen tinkers were poised to try to solve whatever puzzles came their way. Someone was there to tackle computer problems, someone else to mend jewelry. Haircuts, silver polishing and garden design consultations were available too.
Not that people had to fit neatly into set roles. Give-and-take was very much encouraged. So while she waited for help on her projects, Prinz perched outside, offering passersby some of her red wriggler worms, which were squirming in wet newspaper in a bucket — near seedlings also for the taking.
Quite a few people brought items from home to recycle in the cafe's "really, really free market."
One woman who'd had her fill of Weight Watchers laid out a collection of the program's cookbooks, which another woman happily scooped up. Clothing hung on racks, and tables were piled high with bric-a-brac, toys, DVDs.
Someone announced the arrival of a colander full of lemons and, soon after, of a bowl of freshly picked lettuce.
"Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without," read a notice on the sign-in table just inside the door.
Many of the fixers and those they were helping belonged to local time banks — in which time rather than money is exchanged. You bank hours for performing a service, and spend hours to receive help from others. A time banker sat at a table, logging the transactions.
The Repair Cafe is one small effort of Transition Pasadena, a community action group that is part of an international movement called the Transition Network. The focus is on reducing fossil fuel dependence and building a sustainable future. The philosophy? That communities grow stronger when individuals learn to support one another and share their resources and talents.
The talent pool here is deep, said Therese Brummel, a nurse who launched Transition Pasadena in 2010. She recalled one event where a happy man held his repaired object over his head as he left and called out: "I can't believe the guy who built the Mars Rover just fixed my electric shaver!"
In the church hall, one of the Repair Cafe's seamstresses was a costume designer. Alfonso Hodgson, a general contractor, took on Ferree's toaster. It proved very hard to disassemble but, once apart, was quickly fixed. An onion from the everything bagels that Ferree loves had gotten in the way of a magnet.
At the tinker table, Michael Starch, a JPL software engineer, methodically worked on an alarm clock whose plastic buttons — especially the snooze — had worn out.
Starch said that as a boy, he was always taking things apart. At each Repair Cafe, he loves not knowing what challenges he'll face. Recently he spliced wires to fix a dead juicer. He got the spinner working again on a vacuum cleaner that had been run dirty for too long.
"When I can I enjoy coming, because how often do you get to tear apart an alarm clock for a constructive purpose?" he said. He ended up buttressing the buttons with bits of toothpicks that he carefully glued into place.
Each repair job sparked conversations — between the helper and the helped, between the fellow volunteers.
At a picnic table outside in the sun, Greg Marquez, a retired ESL teacher, was showing others how to sharpen blades. Marquez has been part of the Repair Cafe since the beginning. Over time, he said, its real meaning revealed itself.
"We realized that we were coming here," he said, "because … we really need more community."
So just what was being fixed at the Repair Cafe? Maybe the whole world, one small exchange at a time.