We have a deeply throwaway society in the UK. It seems that the majority of us would far rather buy something new than attempt to fix something broken. Moreover, we’re encouraged in this by manufacturers, marketers and designers. Electronics are glued or soldered together, rather than screwed. Spare parts are difficult, if not impossible, to come by. So the reaction when something breaks is that “it’s too difficult to fix” or “it’s too expensive to fix”. Repair Cafés try to take the ‘too difficult’ bit out by finding highly skilled repairers and the ’too expensive’ bit by asking for donations.
At its simplest, a Repair Café is some folk in a room with some tools who try to fix things that people bring them, thereby saving the things from ending up in landfill. For these repairs, Repair Cafés ask for donations, rather than charging. Of course they can’t give guarantees, they just try their best to fix things.
To be honest, I can’t remember who I was talking to, but I do remember thinking “if X can start a repair café in Y, why can’t I start one in Cirencester?” There were electronic and electrical things all around my house that could be useful if only they could be fixed. The 18-month-old kettle had just started leaking, the catch on one of the oven doors on our over-priced range cooker had come apart. If nothing else, I needed a Repair Café myself! Cheltenham already had a Repair Café, run by a Gloucestershire charity called Vision 21 and I threw out a challenge on Twitter to them that they should start one in Cirencester, which they took to imply that I want to start it.
To get things started I went to Cheltenham, firstly to see the Vision 21 Café in action, secondly to talk to Vision 21’s CEO, Dave Entwistle, about the nuts and bolts of starting and running a Café. Vision 21’s Café is quite professional. Its venue is a large-ish church hall in Cheltenham centre and it also has the use of the reception area and supports the actual, food-type café run by the church volunteers. It has a relationship with the University of Gloucestershire’s Design Department, in that undergraduates can come along and see what horrors are wrought in products in the hope that they will avoid such awfulness in their future design careers. Vision 21 are also very useful because they provide the Public Liability insurance for our Café, provided we get our customers to sign a disclaimer form with their items.
I then started trying to acquire the three main components for the Café – volunteer repairers, a venue to hold the café in, and stuff to fix. Vision 21 would loan their tools until the Cirencester Café was up and running.
It turned out that the venue was the easiest part. After a short chat with its proprietor, I got the use (for free) of a community room called “The Bothy” which is situated next to the Vanessa Arbuthnot interior decor shop. Vanessa allows all kinds of groups to use the room, ranging from English language classes for refugees to craft groups. Having a free venue took a bit of the hassle out of the start-up as it avoided the need to find any money for venue fees. Being modern and architect designed, The Bothy has lots of daylight and is quite well arranged, with a nice kitchen.
Recruiting repairers was different. You need a range of repairers since broken and damaged stuff comes in many shapes and forms and we aim to cover as many of these as possible. People with a knowledge of electronics and electrics are an obvious requirement, along with a knowledge of the common PC operating systems and their ailments. People who can sew are also highly desirable, as are bicycle repairers. It is useful to know someone who can weld. The issue is how to contact such people, particularly if you’re retired like me and don’t come across these people at work. So a lot of use was made of social media, the local newspaper and those funny little advertising ‘what’s on’ newsletters.
I made a rather tedious expedition around the larger company offices of the town, presenting small notices to puzzled receptionists for posting on company notice boards and intranets. I also enlisted the help of a small charity in our town which has, amongst several others, a mission to help people back to work after mental or physical problems. The Repair Café idea which would provide an opportunity to practise work-related skills in a non-stressful environment gelled with this mission and so they were pleased to provide a room in which to have a kick-off meeting, which was quite well attended by 20 or so people. Dave Entwistle came to give an authoritative view of how the Café would work, we hoped. We finished the meeting with a fair crop of email addresses and some hope that we would have enough volunteers to start the Café. Equally importantly, a friend, Marieke, from my Friends of the Earth days, said that she was happy to boost our publicity and help running the Cafe generally. It’s much better to have someone you can discuss stuff with and you can both remember the things the other one has forgotten. She is much more marketing-savvy and runs our Facebook group.
Setting a Café up would be pointless if we didn’t have anything to fix. One of our volunteers designed us a lovely poster which was put up on all the town notice boards by Cirencester Town Council and in church and community halls, cafés. Press releases went to the local paper, Wilts and Glos Standard.
Our first Café session was on 27 November 2017, we then had bit of a gap over Christmas with our second session on 27 January of 2018. Dave Entwistle came over from Cheltenham to help with the first few sessions and brought the Cheltenham Café tools for our repairers to use. The early months were nerve-racking as the actual numbers of volunteers who turned up for the sessions by no means resembled those who were in the kick-off meeting to the extent that we cancelled one session due to lack of repairers.
By the time we’d been going for a few months, things had settled down a bit. We’d been receiving lots of donations, so we were able to buy our own tools – our repairers like to bring their own, but sometimes there’s a need for others. We also keep a stock of glues, screws, bolts, bulbs, batteries, cable ties, switches, cleaning fluids, wipes, solder, thread … etc.
Having become known around the town, we started to receive visitors who just came for tea and cake – we need to keep the volunteers fed and watered and offered refreshments to our visitors too.
So the Cirencester Repair Café was well and truly established.
Ed: This is this first article about the Cirencester Repair Café. Don’t miss Part II coming soon!