Fix-It Clinics defy the throwaway economy
The table lamp, with its fizzling light bulbs, was built like a tank and about as attractive. Its base was so heavy that not even the cats could knock it over -- and therein lay its beauty.
Reason enough for Molly Ross of Edina, Minn., to set it before a group of people who know how to fix fizzling lamps and recalcitrant toasters and unpredictable boomboxes.
They're the volunteers for a Fix-It Clinic, an effort begun last year by Hennepin County, Minn. Clinics have a three-pronged approach: One, a repaired gadget is one less gadget tossed in the trash. Two, you can learn to do your own troubleshooting and repair work. Three, you get to meet some really smart and generous people, and that's not a wasted Saturday, even if your toaster never works again.
The effort is itself part of an international movement that began about four years ago in the Netherlands. A similar group called the Fixers Collective started in the New York borough of Brooklyn.
Here's how Fix-It Clinics work: Bring in small appliances, electronics, mobile devices, even clothing that needs mending. Volunteers guide you through the repair process, helping you figure out where the problem may lie and the possible solutions.
"I already do this all the time," said Jimmy Lynch, a volunteer who also is a member of Twin Cities Maker, a community group that, in a nutshell, makes stuff and shares skills. "I like the idea of self-reliance," he said, adding that his dad taught him most of what he knows. "Every weekend, we'd be Dumpster-diving or going to garage sales to find stuff to fix."
Lynch nabbed the challenge of Ross' fizzling lamp, whose two bulbs wouldn't stay lit at once. Lynch and Paul Dingels removed the base, but the problem wasn't there.
Then, to the sockets, which stymied them at first. Finally, they reached the innards. "Looks like someone did a good job of splicing at one time," Dingels said. They tested the charge with a meter, then rewound the wiring, resembling surgeons bent over a patient. Dingels placed a probe on one socket, unexpectedly sending a small arc of sparks across the table.
"Science!" Lynch declared, before he and Dingels agreed to better communicate when the lamp was plugged in. Within a few minutes, they'd achieved success.
Around the room, other resuscitation projects were under way.
Anita Urvina-Davis gave Kelly Wilder a lesson in mending a rip in a pair of sturdy Carhartt jeans. It's a skill she'd learned years ago when her father brought home an old sewing machine from the Salvation Army -- evidence that parents modeling good behavior actually works.
Not everything proved salvageable. A toaster with a disobedient lever was eventually decreed, well, toast. The same fate loomed for a boombox that Daniel Runion of Minneapolis brought, complaining that its volume would inexplicably fade.
Tyler Cooper set about removing 17 screws, which led to the first rule of home repair: Keep track of the tiny stuff.
Cooper figured the problem was in the switch, but doubted that a replacement was available, given the boombox's age. (Once, when the volume came up, the room filled with the Doobie Brothers' "China Grove." "Does that only play tunes from the '70s?" someone cracked. Runion just nodded.)
Cooper considered soldering the switch in place, but kept worrying over the contacts board until finally surmising that the sound vibrations eventually were causing the switch to shift. At this point, it was clear that some repair tips are beyond the realm of being casually passed from expert to owner. Cooper made a fine-tuned fix, then set about the complexity of reasssembly.
"You are the man!" Runion told him, later explaining that while he knows he's gotten fair use from his boombox, "I hate to throw away anything that still has a function. My kids think I'm a pack rat, but really, I just hate consumerism."
Nancy Lo, who coordinates the clinics, said that the fix-it movement is growing nationwide, with similar efforts in the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City and Seattle. In St. Paul, Minn., a business called the Fixity (gofixity.com) opened last year, with the motto, "Fix it, don't nix it!"
Lo said that while her goal is to see landfills filled less quickly, "I really think the main value is that people are leaving with the confidence to try and see if something can be fixed."
She talked about a couple who brought in an antique radio that, having been dropped, no longer worked. "He watched the whole process, getting to see the inside of the radio and how they got it working again using the spring of a ballpoint pen," Lo said.
Later, when the radio again stopped working, he felt like he knew enough to open it up and nose around. That time, the problem simply was a loose speaker wire, which he easily fixed.
"But if he hadn't worked on it before, he wouldn't be any the wiser," Lo said. "We just gave him the confidence."