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Repair cafes are back after the pandemic, and they're only getting more popular

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Toaster ovens, gloves, earrings - when these things break or tear, we often toss them and buy a new one rather than trying to fix them. I know I do. Martha Bebinger from WBUR takes us to one as it opens in Framingham, Mass.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: A line of people holding torn backpacks, iPads that won't turn on and knives gone dull starts forming outside a church social hall a half hour before the doors open.

LESLIE WHITE HARVEY: I'm number one. I want to tell everybody.

BEBINGER: Lesley White Harvey picked up a broken rhinestone wristwatch at a yard sale for a dollar.

WHITE HARVEY: Isn't it beautiful? I have my sports watch, but sometimes I want to dress up.

BEBINGER: While she waits, White Harvey volunteers to help with registration and get things moving. Inside the hall, roughly 30 volunteers set up behind sewing machines, grinders, soldering guns and tool boxes filled with parts and supplies. Organizers Alex Volfson and Marybeth Croci confer.

ALEX VOLFSON: Since it's five of, should we just unleash - start unleashing?

MARYBETH CROCI: I think we unleash. Everyone's set up and ready to go, and the sooner we get them in, the less lines we'll have.

VOLFSON: All right. Sounds like a plan.

BEBINGER: This is Framingham's sixth repair cafe. COVID was a major interruption, but Framingham aims for three cafes a year. Croci says she doesn't have any trouble finding people willing to spend a Saturday afternoon fixing items for strangers.

CROCI: Our volunteers love it. And here's one more sewer. Can you guys make room? Toby's really tiny.

BEBINGER: There's a wide range of expertise here - knitters, electricians, software and mechanical engineers. But it's hard to predict what services will be in demand.

CROCI: We get a lot of people that are jacks-of-all-trades, so we hope for the best.

BEBINGER: Today, Celine Riard, an interior designer, is focused on a common repair cafe contender - lamps. Riard picks up a stately brass model and twists open the top.

CELINE RIARD: Like, that little switch is usually the first thing that's going to give up.

BEBINGER: In a few minutes, Riard is testing a new switch.

RIARD: Yep, it's working. Done. Helping people, fixing things - you know, it really gives you a sense of purpose.

BEBINGER: Riard scans the room and spots the lamp's owner, June Joyce. She's a volunteer at the jewelry repair table.

RIARD: Excuse me to interrupt. June, is that yours?

JUNE JOYCE: Yes.

RIARD: It's fixed.

JOYCE: That's so perfect. Thank you.

ALLEXE LAW: And it's so nice to have someone fix your jewelry. I mean, she's doing phenomenal.

BEBINGER: Allexe Law holds a beaded necklace Joyce has just restrung.

LAW: My great aunt made this, and it didn't have the right chain because it kept on snapping.

BEBINGER: That was 20 years ago. The necklace became one of those things we just can't let go of, but never get around to fixing. Now the beads are on a sturdy new chain. Together, Joyce and Law designed a way to reuse the broken parts.

JOYCE: We're recycling her necklace to make an ankle bracelet.

LAW: Because otherwise, it would just be, like, scrap. Waste not, want not.

JOYCE: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

BEBINGER: In the Netherlands, where repair cafes started, organizers estimate that 2,600 cafes worldwide keep about half a million items out of landfills every year. It's a drop in the bucket. But Volfson, one of the Framingham organizers, says repair cafes could help shift our throwaway culture.

VOLFSON: The society we're in is all driven on, like, digging more things up out of the Earth, turning them into products, and then sending them to a landfill as fast as we can. That doesn't seem like a good plan if you think of us living on a finite ball called the Earth because you'll eventually run out of things to dig up and places to throw them.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRINDING WHEEL SPINNING)

BEBINGER: A grinding wheel that can sharpen gardening tools is in high demand on this unusually warm winter day, and the bike repair station is busy too. Ten-year-old Abdul Senusi rattles off the list of problems with his orange and black BMX.

ABDUL SENUSI: It's the brakes, and it doesn't have a cable. And the tires didn't have air.

BEBINGER: Senusi says he wasn't that excited to come, but now he keeps wandering away from his bike to check out the watch repairs or the guts of a tape player.

SENUSI: Turns out there was, like, all these things. So then I was like, whoa, this place is actually cool.

BEBINGER: About 20% of things brought in today can't be fixed on the spot or at all. Senusi's bike needs some parts, but he and most of the 150 or so people who showed up leave smiling, saying they'll be back.

For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Framingham, Mass. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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