- By John Stark
A few years ago a friend gave me a Keurig coffee maker as a present. I loved it and used it every day until it went on the blink 13 months later, which of course was a month after the warranty had run out. My Google search for someone nearby to fix it proved fruitless.
I couldn’t bear to throw the coffeemaker out. It was too new and high-end for that. As a passionate recycler, I couldn’t stand the thought of putting it in the trash, where it would end up in a landfill. And because it was a gift, it had sentimental meaning to me. I still have it. It’s in my basement.
It’s down there alongside my broken coffee grinder, food processor, tape recorder, DVD player and Art Deco floor lamp.
Whatever happened to fixing things?
When I was growing up, we were a fix-it society. Every dad had a tool kit and every mom a sewing basket. Dads loved to tinker. Mine would unscrew the back of the TV set when it went out and remove the tubes, which he’d take to a tube-testing machine at the nearest drug store. At night my mom would sit on the couch and darn our socks. Probably the only place you’ll ever see a wooden sock darner today is at the Smithsonian.
In those days, you couldn’t run down to the nearest Best Buy, Costco or Sam’s Club to instantly replace appliances and electronics. They didn’t exist. Nor did wallets full of credit cards to pay for them. If you needed something fixed and you couldn’t do it yourself, you called your local repairman or repair shop. There once was someone to fix everything.
I was watching TV the other night when a local public service announcement came on that really grabbed my attention. It was for a series of DIY fixit clinics that are being sponsored in the Twin Cities by the Hennepin County Environmental Services as part of its waste-reduction effort. The ad encouraged residents to bring in household items, electronics and clothing that were in need of repair. Handy volunteers would be there to help disassemble, troubleshoot and fix them.
I called the Environmental Services office and talked to Nancy Lo, who was coordinating the events at various public spaces. The first clinic had just taken place at a public library in South Minneapolis. “Twenty-eight people showed up,” she said, bringing such things as toasters, hair dryers, alarm clocks and sewing machines. “Out of 34 items, 27 got fixed.” (Click here for the upcoming Twin Cities schedule)
Lo told me the concept for these clinics started in Amsterdam. In 2009 the first U.S. one was started in Berkeley, Calif., by Peter Mui.
I called Mui who said he launched his “Fixit Clinic” to change people’s mindsets. At age 51, he too grew up in an era of repair. “We’ve been encouraged over the years to think everything is disposable.”
So far the MIT graduate has presided over 32 clinics, mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area, but with satellite clinics in Cambridge, Mass.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and now, Minneapolis. “They’re fun,” he said. “I wanted these to be interactive events. People really enjoy disassembling things as a group activity, and there’s an overall atmosphere of sharing and light heartedness. Kids especially have a great time.” (Click here to see a video of one in action.)
As for the success rate, “I estimate that about 70 percent of the stuff brought in goes home fixed,” said Mui, who for a living does business development and marketing of high-tech mobile devices and touch screens. “If not repaired, most things go home with an excellent prognosis for getting fixed. It may be that we just don’t have the part on hand. But whether it gets fixed or not, people leave having learned a little more about how it worked and why it stopped working.”
Although Americans love buying gadgets, “that hasn’t translated to a broader understanding of their underpinning technologies,” Mui went on to say. “All this stuff is so integral to our lives, yet we don’t know what’s inside them. And when they fail us, we’re lost. What do we do?”
The manufacturers of these gadgets aren’t helping. They make it difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary people to repair them. Lo told me that a woman at the Minnesota clinic brought a broken electric fan that she had purchased at Target. “All it needed to work was to have its blades cleaned,” Lo said, “but you have to own a special screwbit to take off the screws of the plastic frame."
In earlier days, Mui pointed out, toasters were designed to be opened up so you could fix them. Not anymore. “There are warning labels on the bottoms and backs of our gadgets saying ‘Danger,’ ‘Hazard: Electric Shock,’
‘No user serviceable parts inside,’” Mui said. “You own it, yet you can’t get into it. Our clinics give people permission to open stuff up. In my opinion, encouraging people to take a screwdriver to things when appropriate is crucial to a well-functioning democracy.”
Because of price, disposability is becoming less and less an option on some items. “For a long time consumer electronics were cheap, so there was little incentive to get them repaired,” Mui said. “But now our high-tech mobile devices are expensive and we expose them to hostile environments, like dropping them in water. So there’s now an added economic incentive to get them repaired instead of just replacing them.”
What really makes the clinics worthwhile for Mui is the satisfaction he gets when someone brings in an item that he or she has an emotional investment in. “One guy came into the inaugural Minneapolis Fixit Clinic with a broken radio that he and his girlfriend had bought at a thrift store,” Mui said. “He told a romantic tale about how it was playing an Otis Redding song that they really loved when they first turned it on. The radio fell off a shelf and he wanted to get it playing again for her birthday. All the Fixit Coaches wanted to work with him: we had five people on it. Everyone was determined to get it fixed, and we succeeded.”
Personally, I don’t feel much of an attachment to my broken tape recorder or coffee grinder, which are cheap enough to replace. But that coffee machine was a generous gift from a friend. So I’m going to take it to the next Fixit Clinic in my area. And when the friend who gave it to me comes to visit from California, it’s going to be sitting on my kitchen counter plugged in and ready to brew. My thank-you to her will be a great cup of coffee.