The following article was first published in the September 2019 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:
Susanne is using a needle and colour-coordinated cotton to reattach the paw of a pastel-striped cuddly sloth. At a table next to her, Fran is ready with a cocktail of adhesives guaranteed to eliminate the wobble from the second-hand table lamp she’s disassembling. On the other side of the room, Paul’s putting a revitalised vacuum cleaner back together, while Roy is delivering a generous squirt of switch-cleaning lubricant to the innards of a noisy wind-up radio.
This is the monthly Lewes Repair Cafe at Landport Community Hub, where a team of enthusiastic and capable volunteers fix anything from toasters to trousers, from chairs to china. Currently, around 30 people are involved or ready to lend a hand, organiser Tony tells me. “We’ve got into a sort-of throwaway culture, because sometimes things are very cheap”, he explains. “The cafe seemed a way of subverting manufacturers’ ways of getting us to buy new stuff.” Although having an item repaired can save the price of a new purchase, even the cost of repairs may be prohibitive. As a result, the Lewes service is free, although donations towards the running costs are appreciated. There’s also a social angle – “getting the community to come together, interacting with each other”, says Tony – as well as a hope that some visitors might learn from the people doing repairs. And yes, calling the event a ‘cafe’ is entirely accurate: you’ll find tea, coffee and an assortment of home-made cakes on offer while waiting for your broken items to be fixed.
“It can sometimes be more expensive to repair things than buy new stuff”, Tony admits. Indeed, some products seem designed deliberately to frustrate the non-professional fixer. Take the iPhone, for example, which requires specialist tools to disassemble it and has key parts glued in place. This type of complexity has even become an election issue in the USA, with politicians arguing that manufacturers should be obliged to provide repair manuals and diagnostic tools rather than forcing customers to rely on authorised service agents.
But repairs aren’t just about fixing a fault. They can restore happy memories, as Fran has found. “I’m usually dealing with people’s sentimental items. If it’s china, it’s always something from their family history. It’s so rewarding – and they’re so grateful.” In some cases, repairs can even improve the original item. Imogen, another of the volunteer menders, chats to me about the Japanese art of kintsugi, where broken pottery is repaired with precious metal – often liquid gold or a mixture of lacquer and powdered gold – to enhance rather than disguise the joins. The same applies to her dressmaking skills, she insists. “You grow more in love with clothes you’ve repaired. You like them better.”
The next Lewes Repair Cafe takes place at the Landport Community Hub on Landport Road from 2pm to 5pm on Saturday 21st September, then again on Saturday 19th October. facebook.com/lewesrepaircafe/