Wai Chu Cheng and Paul Magder (who is, yes, the same guy whose lawsuit almost got Mayor Rob Ford booted from office) started Repair Café Toronto to fix what they saw as two major problems with the world around them. The first was our tendency, as a society, to throw away broken things, rather than fix them. The other was that too many of us don’t know our neighbours.
The idea behind the cafés is fairly straightforward, according to Magder.
“The idea is to bring together people who can fix things, volunteers, and people who have things that are broken,” he says. “They can help them fix it, or show them how to fix it, and then there will be coffee and tea and it will be like a community gathering.”
A repair café isn’t a café in the strictest sense; rather than a permanent business, it’s a recurring one-day event with a café-like atmosphere. Since the launch of the first one, in Amsterdam in 2009, the phenomemon has spread to 80 other cities in the Netherlands. Cafés have also been launched in Germany, France, Belgium, Latvia, Great Britain, and the U.S. Canada’s first repair café happened in Calgary earlier this year. The inaugural Toronto café, which Magder and Cheng are putting on with help from friends and family members, will take place on May 25.
“The [waste] diversion rate in Toronto is only 50 per cent,” says Cheng. “We only have one landfill, and waste has to be trucked 200 kilometres to get there…and it will be full in 14 years. We have to reduce the waste.”
Cheng and Magder say that so far, people have been very enthusiastic about the idea of a repair café, but it’s been hard to find enough volunteer technicians to do the repairs.
“Finding people with skills is the biggest issue,” says Magder. “We need a list of people who are willing to help out, who have a vareity of skills, before we can offer different services…We want to make sure that when people come to the first one with things that are broken, they actually leave with them fixed. Otherwise the whole thing will probably just peter out.”
Cheng points out that our tendency to replace rather than repair is a relatively new phenomenon.
“In our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, it was very normal to repair things,” she says. “You didn’t just throw stuff away, but our generation and younger generations, they’re either too busy or they don’t know how to do it. And I’m one of them.”
“Older people, they have these skills, and I think these skills are not being valued. I hope that this can be brought back.”
As a result, one of the places the pair has been searching for volunteers is in retirement homes.
“There are always people who are retired, but would like the opportunity to share their knowledge,” says Magder.
They’re also searching for volunteers at trade schools and community colleges, and at immigrant settlement organizations.
“It’s a cliché to say we’re building closer communities, but it’s true,” says Cheng. “We want to bring together young people and older people, have newcomers to the city interacting with locals. It can be a place where people meet.”
The pair say that, ideally, they’d like to see repair cafés in every corner of the city.
“Anyone who wants to come see it in action so they can start their own should come down,” says Magder. “We’re open source.”