A legion of volunteers armed with repair kits and a diverse array of experiences sat along tables set up in the lobby of the Robert Crown Community Center.
From 10 a.m. to noon on this day in June, they welcomed people bringing anything from broken fans to torn jackets, refurbishing their belongings while also giving the attendees the skills to tackle the repairs on their own — all for free.
Evanston’s Repair Café took root in 2018 at the Ecology Center, sponsored by Citizens for Greener Evanston and the Evanston Public Library. After a brief hiatus during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event is back and thriving.
When “you come in here with a toaster or with a blouse that ripped, you don’t just leave it; you, ideally, co-repair with the person that’s helping you. Some people just look and ask questions while you’re doing it, while other people really get hands on,” said Beatriz Echeverria, Repair Café organizer and Evanston Public Library branch assistant. “The benefit of that is plentiful. For example, it gets stuff out of the landfill. Another good thing that it has is that it builds community because we have a ton of fun with people.”
Organizers say one element has been particularly critical in promoting the event’s mission: the people.
As organizers, volunteers, and community members come together on the second Saturday of every even-numbered month, the event nurtures unity among people of all different ages and backgrounds.
“There was a young Northwestern student here, maybe four months ago, and she had a tear down from her jacket caused by dog pulling. She brought it in and I taught her how to thread a needle,” said Kitty Nagler, life-long seamstress and Repair Café volunteer. “She didn’t know how to do that, [and] I got her to start stitching it down. She did a better job than I would have; she was doing these beautiful, delicate little stitches all the way down.”
Patron Gail Trauger elaborates on how members of the older generation can use and share their skills with younger members of the community through the Repair Café.
“Generationally wise, it was mandatory when I was in junior high that we take a home economics class, so I do know how to sew,” Trauger says. “I don’t sew anymore, [and] I don’t own a sewing machine. I tried to repair this [bag] on my own, [but] it wasn’t as secure as I wanted it to be.”
It’s “a way for older volunteers to expand the people they meet and to also put their skills to work, because they have a ton of skills that otherwise maybe they only use for themselves at their homes,” Echeverria adds.
Patrons are expected to assist the volunteers during the repair process— often learning the skills to later restore items themselves.
“It’s also a way for people to realize that repairing is not really that hard. Most people think you have to be an expert, but you just have to learn or lose the fear,” Echeverria notes. “My intention, at least, is that people lose the fear of tackling repair. If afterwards they still want to come, that’s fine, but a lot of them just do it at home afterwards.”
On June 11, patron Jenna Morgan came into the Repair Café with a broken fan and, through the volunteer’s guidance, left with a working one.
“It was nice that they explained what they were doing and had me put it all together. I feel like I can fix stuff on my own a little bit more now that I’ve done this,” Morgan said.
Another recurring patron, Mary Beth Roth, echoes Morgan’s experience of being involved in the repair process.
“This is a really great service because we’re supposed to come and help out, so when [the volunteer] was dismantling my vacuum cleaner, several weeks ago, I couldn’t do the little movements,” Roth said. “So, I just held the flashlight for him and anything I could do to help, and that was fun, and he explained stuff to me, [which] is really nice.”
The independence can also be empowering for some.
“Sometimes [the patrons] come in and they feel they cannot repair stuff. It’s funny because you see a lot of women that are interested but they’re like, ‘No, but I don’t know how to,’ and they do know how to repair things,” Echeverria says. “I see a lot of women that would be great as general appliance repairers.”
The practical element — in both finance and convenience — has been demonstrated through its partnership with the local Wheel and Sprocket, a bicycle store on Davis Street. Liam Ouweleen, a Wheel and Sprocket employee, lends his time and skills to participate in the repairs.
“There are some people that, perhaps, don’t know their local bike shop, don’t know where to get their bikes repaired, or they don’t feel like they have money for the repairs,” Ouweleen says. “A lot of people riding bikes are riding it because it’s one of the cheapest forms of transportation, so this has been an interesting resource for people who just need to keep on going.”
Thus, even with a repair as complex as fixing a bicycle, Ouweleen still makes an effort to educate patrons along the way.
“When somebody drops a bike off at the shop, they say, ‘It’s broken. Please fix it.’ When people come [to the café] with their bikes, they’re a lot more curious about how they can learn from what I’m doing in order to be able to take ownership over their stuff,” Ouweleen said.
Alexis Rogers and Sophia Sherman are part of the 2022 intern program at the Evanston RoundTable.