At the Repair Café in Borough, London, people are repairing, patching, soldering, and fixing what’s nowhere near ready for the skip. A community helps itself – and counters the consumption of ever-new products. Our author Alfred decided to take a clogged vacuum cleaner. A hands-on experiment.

For my old printer, the recommendation came too late. When I first heard about the London-based Repair Café, I had long discarded the device; despite my increasingly exasperated attempts at training it not to chew paper, it stubbornly remained in destruct mode. The result: e-waste landfill fodder.

So, as it comes to putting the Repair Café to the test, I find myself without anything to fix. Luckily, my neighbor struggles with a vacuum cleaner that refuses to do its job properly – its tentative carpet-suckling is a far cry from the device’s promised 2000 Watts of suction power. So, into the trunk it goes to become my Repair Café project.

journalist Alfred Rinaldi takes his neighbor's vacuum cleaner to the Repair Café
A visit to the Repair Café of the Goodlife Centre in London.

If there was a hospital for things, the Goodlife Centre would be an elegant private clinic. At the helm: resolute and competent chief of staff Alison Winfield-Chislett.

The center’s light and airy workshops feature any tool imaginable for tricky upholstery, sewing curtains from scratch, all sorts of electronic repairs, and plenty of other crafting tasks. Even the partition windows are recycled, while the walls come papered in apt Victorian-age DIY instructions.

“Welcome to the Goodlife Centre,“ beams Alison before offering me a cup of tea and biscuits, like any self-respecting Briton. The center itself, open since 2011, now offers around 50 craft-related courses. According to Alison, it all started with a single power drill – and the founder still has a huge soft spot for the Repair Café, which takes place at the center every two to three months.

The art of doing it yourself

“We have depowered ourselves,” Alison explains. “While we own more and more devices, we don’t know what goes on inside our stuff. Today’s parents want their children to go to university instead of working with their hands. We have always relied on there being a little man around the corner who would fix things for a bale of hay. But such people have become increasingly rare. No surprise then that an entire new generation is obsessed with learning the art of doing it yourself.”

all kinds of tools on the wall of the Repair Café
In addition to experience and skills, the Goodlife Centre also provides tools.

Dave Lukes backs her up. He is a volunteer at the Restart Project, an organization dedicated to reducing electronic waste.

“For me, repairing is the perfect pastime,” he says. “It’s not just worthy, but also great fun. You get a real kick out of figuring out what the problem is and solving the challenge. It’s definitely a lot more interesting than going to the shops to buy something new. In a way, it’s you against the universe: Something is trying to fail and force me to buy something new, but I say no. It’s a counter movement to the consumerism that has taken power away from us.”

Dave Lukes of the Repair Café
Dave Lukes volunteers at the Repair Café.

Before it’s my turn, I watch onsite expert Stefania Fantini tackle Janet Dalhouse’s DVD player. Janet is of Caribbean descent where it’s considered taboo to throw anything away that could still be salvaged. Stefania starts by opening the device and cleaning the laser surface with compressed air.

Today’s first lesson: A lot of the time, it’s enough to give broken things a thorough cleansing – whether you’re dealing with a toaster with a stubborn lever that refuses to stay down or a DVD player with a stuck drawer.

Next up is a lamp with a worn-out thread, easily fixed with a bit of Stefania’s magic, followed by a hand-held blender that just needs a new fuse. But my personal highlight turns out to be John Iacona’s completely frayed jacket. A case for the next charity collection? No way!

Creative repairs celebrate unique objects

Alison has already prepped her favorite sewing machine. “It’s a real workhorse,” she praises the sturdy tool. “It’ll eat through anything!” Alison shows John how to use the machine. In the end, he has patched his jacket so creatively that it actually looks far better – and certainly more interesting – than when it was new.

Now, it possesses its very own, authentic history. It also reminds me of the Japanese art of Kintsugi where broken ceramics are mended with visible seams of gold. By highlighting the damage instead of hiding it, the artist celebrates the “wounds” of a seemingly irrecoverable or destroyed object.

John, a visitor, sewing a piece of cloth using a sewing machine at the Repair Café in Waterloo, London
John gets busy on the sewing machine.
John cutting a piece of cloth
The result: effective and unique.

Finally, it’s my turn. Like a sick kitten, I hoist the vacuum cleaner onto the treatment table. The engine purrs, but the machine’s suction has now dwindled to nothing. Stefania removes the tube and places a hand in front of the vacuum’s opening – it seems to be working fine. Maybe the hose is blocked?

Stefania holds it upside down and drops a coin inside. It disappears without a sound or trace – a clear case of debris blockage. Undeterred by what lurks within, Stefania grabs a thin metal rod to push out an unappetizing stuck ball of hair and dust. Problem solved: My neighbor won’t need to buy a brand-new vacuum cleaner – and the e-waste mountain grows a little more slowly.

Get busy – swing by the Repair Café

To be perfectly honest, I’m a bit embarrassed that neither I nor my neighbor tried to identify the underlying problem. On the other hand, the experience highlights just how indifferent we’ve all become to failing devices.

We have come to believe that repairing cheap electronics is simply not worth it, but most of the time that’s not true. All it takes is … a little bit of time and plenty of curiosity.

By now, most major cities host events like London’s Repair Café. If Alison had her say, we wouldn’t be paying a flat fee for our garbage collection, but for the actual volume produced. Maybe, this would prompt and inspire us to rediscover the virtues of our grandparents even faster.

One thing is certain: The next time I’m confronted with a broken household device, I will try to fix it myself. Because there’s nothing more fun and rewarding than bringing a struggling object back to life with a little bit of skill and inquisitive spirit.

crowd at the Repair Café meeting
The Repair Café at the Goodlife Centre takes place every two to three months.
DIY community at the Repair Café
safety toolkit at the Goodlife Center
participants in a DIY course
people sewing clothes
visitors learn how to repair broken things
volunteer Stefania Fantini explains things to a visitor
a person gluing pieces of wood
Dave Lukes helps a visitor to repair a broken gadget

For more information on the project, check out the Goodlife Centre website.