After months of preparation, Cirencester Repair Café opened on 27 November 2017 at The Bothy with a good range of repairers and of course the first things to fix.
Items outside the ‘normal’ range also turned up. Early oddballs included the ‘headless Scotsman’, which was a kilted figure, made of thinnish cast iron with a heavy base to form a door stop to which we managed to get the head re-attached by welding after a few false starts.
Then there was a vintage concertina, badly in need of cleaning, which, when finished, was picked up by a random gent who had turned up just to look round and who announced “I can play this” and gave us a tune!
We expanded our capabilities with a highly-expert bicycle repairer, Andrew, one of the management team at the Bristol Bike Project and we tentatively started with sharpening knives and other blades. Limitations of the venue emerged in that it had no storage for our kit and I was being forced to store it at home and cart it to and fro for each session. Also some of our volunteers felt that parking in the centre of town was too expensive. However, we continued to run sessions in that venue throughout 2018 and 2019 (with breaks in the summer) and right up to the start of the pandemic lockdown, when, of course, we had to shut down ‘person-to-person’ sessions. During 2019 we had repaired 121 items and the local press were singing our praises.
The pandemic in 2020 brought problems but also opportunities. After a week or two of lockdown, one of our volunteers, Colin, had the idea that Repair Café could be supporting ‘key workers’ in the NHS with repairs, even to the extent of repairing non-essential equipment in the local hospital. This idea was spurred on by the realisation that, during this period of lockdown, there was an enthusiastic volunteer-run transport system initially for transporting food and other supplies to households that were ‘shielding’, in default of the supermarket deliveries. After a conversation with the local COVID-19 Response Co-ordinator, we were able to make use of this system to transport items from their owners to our repairers and back again without breaking any of the lockdown conditions.
The original idea of providing the service to NHS workers was quashed by the hospital administration for reasons that were never clear. However, the Repair Takeaway, as we named it, took off quite nicely in a slow motion way. Requests for fixes were made on a dedicated website and allocated to repairers. The items were collected and delivered to the repairers by volunteers, fixed and returned by the same volunteers in response to email requests. We set up a crowd-funder to receive donations and this was generously supported. The Repair Takeaway also created challenges for our repairers. One was a replacing a key in a full-size Yamaha Clavinova electronic piano, with a keyboard so large and heavy that it took two to lift it; another was a LED-lit fountain, where our repairer had to rebuild and encapsulate the complete control circuit. The success of the Takeaway was largely due to Colin Thompson, who has since taken on the role of electronics guru (he can fix big flat-screen TVs!). He keeps us up to scratch on COVID-19 precautions and liaises with the Scouts (see below) over our storage
Lockdown also triggered a change of venue. Vanessa Arbuthnot announced that she was not going to re-open her community room until the end of 2020, and as lockdown was lifted sufficiently in the autumn for us to restart, we found a new venue in a Scout Hut, slightly out of town, more than a little scruffy, but with a free car park and, wonder of wonders, somewhere to store our tools! Maintaining a COVID-secure set-up means that we unfortunately can’t let our clients into the hall to wait while their fix is worked on and we now phone them to collect their item after its been attended to. We’ve increased our opening hours and now have a reliable gang of volunteers resulting in more fixes per session.
What have we fixed?
While we’ve seen an enormous variety of items, roughly 150 different types, the most ‘popular’ type of item that we have had through our doors has been, far and away, the table lamp, with upwards of 25 of the awkward things turning up. Considering that they mostly consist only of a bulb holder, a length of flex, a switch and a plug, they present all sorts of problems, like old insulation welding itself to tubes inside and disintegrating bulb holders and connectors. The problems of a rather distinguished lamp from the USA were so extreme that they could only be solved by converting it from mains voltage to 12 volts. Clocks, vacuum cleaners and bikes formed the next most numerous cohort. The small electronic movements in modern clocks are mostly unfixable once they have died and they have to be replaced. Vacuum cleaners suffer from clogging, worn bearings and damaged cables. They can be difficult to open up and, needless to say, are always horrid inside. Recently there’s been an influx of toasters, which are not pleasant to work on when their owners haven’t cleaned them out.
How successful are we?
By and large, we receive about 20 items to fix at each session – we’ve been as low as 6 and as high as 29. Of these, we logged 60-70% as ‘fixed’, bearing in mind that some items are just knives or similar to be sharpened whereas others are giant flat-screen TVs. That still gives us around 14 happy customers per session. We repairers are happy too since we have been able to equip the Café with a fair range of tools, pay a little rent to the Scouts and give about £500 to a community kitchen and the local food bank out of the donations we’ve received.
Based on saving items from land fill and reducing the need for folks to buy new stuff, we are reducing carbon emissions, which recently we’ve been calculating using a webpage provided by the Repair Café foundation. The possible savings from our last two sessions were estimated to be about 1,110 kg and 280 kg of CO2, the difference being due to the fact that a computer was fixed in the earlier session and these are amazingly carbon-intensive, 5kg of computer generating 713 kg of CO2. Based on these numbers, we might estimate that we have saved about 19 tonnes of CO2 over 27 Café sessions.
Where do we go from here?
For my part, I think we still need a bigger group of volunteers. There is always a slight worry about ‘staffing’ each session. Along with that, it would be really nice to run more than one session in a month, possibly back in our original venue, though this has obvious complications for tools and people. On the other hand, we might improve our service if we could take the repairs to the repairers – our Repair Takeaway service had a very high fix rate.
Many items, particularly toys, are brought to us with broken plastic parts which are unobtainable and therefore are impossible to repair. We are hoping to recruit a repairer who is skilled in 3D computer modelling. We could 3D print replacements, perhaps using a higher quality of plastic to extend the life span of the item even further.
This year we joined the Restart Project, which means that we’re now on the map of a growing network of Repair Cafés in many countries across the world.
Next month, we’ll be helping start up a new Café down the road in Malmesbury.
PS: A big THANK YOU to all our volunteers.
Also we’d like to get young people involved. You can protect the environment and learn new skills.
Ed: If you read our article about how Cirencester’s Repair Café was set up, you’ll want to know how they got on. If not, you can read about the set up here.