Palo Alto's Repair Café focuses on preservation and thrift | News | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto's Repair Café focuses on preservation and thrift

From mechanical chickens to bicycles, volunteers mend them all

As morning light streamed through the open garage doors at the Museum of American Heritage, Peter Skinner began orientation for 38 volunteer fixers and 10 apprentices at the 11th Palo Alto Repair Café.

The scene was calm, but soon, the crew was busy solving problems — problems that came in the form of faulty bike brakes, malfunctioning CD players, ripped seams and even the broken leg of a plastic horsey.

The quarterly event started in 2012 after Skinner, its founder, heard about the program over in the Netherlands. The global organization began in 2009 thanks to Martine Postma, who wanted to help her community's sustainability efforts. The first event in Amsterdam on Oct. 18, 2009, sparked a nonprofit that today offers support to more than 750 Repair Cafés, according to group's website. This includes Palo Alto's, which was the first Repair Café in the United States.

Skinner said he sees three types of clients who bring their household and personal goods for repair: environmentalists, people who want to push back against the consumer culture and people who want to save money. He approves of all of those reasons because they all fall in line with the event's motto, "Toss it? No way!"

In a society focused on the latest and greatest products, Skinner and his crew are taking a stand for preservation and thrift. On this Sunday in late August, they prepared to spend four hours of their time figuring out how to extend the lives of other people's used goods.

Ready to repair

At 11 a.m., the volunteers started repairing. At the intake table, Linda Filo and Eileen Wall typed sign-in sheet information into Libby Dame's Google Sheet.

"We call this initial step our triage process," Skinner said. "We try to match each item to the volunteers with that skill."

The goods are assigned to one of four groups: appliances, clothing/jewelry, bikes and big machines. The item's owner describes the problem to the fixer, along with details such as what has already been tried or the significance of the object — all of which help the fixer find a solution.

Skinner has seen some tricky repairs, such as a mechanical chicken and a clock that turned backward. If anyone gets stuck, all they have to do is call over fixer coordinator John Eaton or Apprentice Program coordinator Lawrence Garwin, and they will consult on the project.

"Most of the people here do this because they just like fixing stuff," Skinner said.

This need to repair has translated to fixed items and happy clients. In August, Palo Alto Repair Café volunteers addressed 1,698 items with a fix rate of 68 percent, according to metrics from Dame and Skinner.

"That's nearly 1,000 things that didn't go into a landfill," Skinner said.

Little treasures for little hands

With a look of hope, 7-year-old Celia handed her toy horse over to Don Van Creveld, a fixer from Redwood City. Her brown horse no longer galloped because it had suffered a broken leg (the leg had literally snapped off).

"I'm not a vet," Van Creveld said, "but we'll start working on it."

Her parents, Michael and Christina Gorokhovsky from Santa Clara, had tried to glue the leg back on, but it always popped off again. Because the obvious fix wasn't going to work, Van Creveld and his apprentice Alex Tataru, who has mechanical engineering undergraduate and graduate degrees from Stanford University, opted to install a metal wire.

First, Tataru searched for a drill bit small enough to drill into the horse's tiny plastic leg. Unfortunately, none existed at the site, so another volunteer ran to Hassett Hardware, which contributed supplies and tools to the event. Eventually, a tool arrived that allowed Van Creveld to drill the hole manually, after which he and Tataru slid metal wire into the leg and bonded the pieces together. The successful operation left Celia's dad holding the horse until it was completely dry and Celia eager to play with her toy again.

Yoko Tsuno, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, brought two broken objects that are special to her 7-year-old daughter. One was a black, plastic penguin timer, and the other was a little, white stuffed dog from Japan that used to light up. When the fixer handed over the repaired timer, all Tsuno's daughter could say was "Yay!"

On the dog, Tsuno wasn't sure how to reach the batteries, so Lyle Hornback cut a few strings to reveal the batteries' location.

"I didn't want to throw it away," Tsuno said. "It was just too special to her."

Teamwork makes the stuff work

Greg Van Hauser, a Portola Valley resident, brought Jackie Copple to the event because he knew her family heirloom would be in good hands. He had a bike fixed at a previous Repair Café but remembered people bringing all types of gadgets to the fixers.

More than five people ended up investigating, and tugging at, the 1960 Singer sewing machine. And eventually, Copple left the event ready to sew and mend her own fabrics.

Back with the Gorokhovsky family, Van Creveld, Tataru and fixer Peter Froud worked on a typewriter that required a group effort, with Celia lending a hand.

"The kids have been into typing on the typewriter, even though it doesn't work right," Christina Gorokhovsky said. "I'm not surprised to see her wanting to jump in and help."

Celia followed Tataru around to find tools and served as the key tester while Froud was troubleshooting. In the end, the typewriter didn't work perfectly, but Froud recommended a typewriter store that might be able to provide parts and fully repair it.

Saving the earth

While others banged and soldered, Mariana Antcheva, a resident of Mountain View, sat in the shade hand-stitching a new zipper to a pair of pants. The black fabric slowly moved through her hand as she explained how she gained her skill set while growing up in eastern Europe.

"I learned out of necessity," she said. "Today, it's more for ecological aspects. To me it's a no-brainer. It's a shame to just let objects go."

It was her first Repair Café, and she sewed buttons, repaired two bags, patched a bookbag and saved the pants, which were already on borrowed life, Antcheva said.

"Part of it is to make people happy," she said. "We all own things like that."

Inside the garage, Tanya Tran, an Old Palo Alto neighborhood resident, hoped to save her lamp from the landfill. For the repair, she was told, she needed to buy a new switch. A quick run to Hassett Hardware and $6 later, Tran returned with a white switch in hand for fixer Amil Patel. He consulted with Garwin on which side of the wire to attach the new switch, asking Tran where she would like the switch before he secured it.

"I hate it when something doesn't work and you have to throw it away," Tran said. "It's a waste."

Experts share their knowledge

Bikes entered the station bent, disheveled and stuck and in many cases left ready to roll, thanks the bike volunteers. Tom Kabat, a fixer and resident from Menlo Park, worked with second-time apprentice Alice Eamsherangkoon to ready 10-year-old Sam Grotenstein's bike for more rides.

"We increasingly find ourselves biking around the city to avoid traffic," said Kristin Muller, a resident of Menlo Park and Sam's mom.

Sam tried to roll the bike over, but the squeaking brakes made the bike lurch along. Kabat diagnosed the problem: crimped brakes. He recommended a local store where the family could purchase new brakes that he would be happy to install if they returned with them. Unfortunately, time didn't allow for a total fix, but Kabat and Eamsherangkoon oiled the gears, giving the bike at least a slight tune up, and provided the owners with some instruction.

"At least we know what's wrong," Kabat said. "I like to at least give them that and show them how to fix it later with the right parts."

Using their electrical knowledge, fixer Tre Retter and apprentice Clara Druzgalski began to tackle a toaster oven. Before they dove into the fix, both drew an electrical diagram so they could reverse engineer the problem. This gave them a chance to understand each wire's function before jumping into the project.

"I look over, and she was drawing, too," Retter said. "We were on the same page."

With completed diagrams, they compared and contemplated potential solutions. Then, they started removing the screws of Quang Ly's toaster oven. He and his wife patiently stood at the end of the table watching the fixer/apprentice duo test different circuits with a multimeter. Eventually, they rigged a system and instructed Ly on how to operate it. As Ly walked away, rolling the working toaster oven behind him in a cart, Druzgalski and Retter shared a high five.

"It's so rewarding to know you fixed something," Retter said. "It's like, 'Booyah, we got this working!'"

When not in Palo Alto volunteering, Retter continues to fix at the Tap-Tempo Music Shop, which he owns, in San Jose. Because he is always fixing, friends recommended that he try out the Repair Café.

"I love fixing things," he said, "and people are patient and appreciative of the help."

The final numbers

As the day ended, Dame started to add up the stats: 139 clients, 204 items and 119 repairs.

"I've been so busy that I didn't drink my coffee or eat my bagel," Dame said, referring to donated refreshments from that morning.

Even though it was a busy day, it doesn't match the Feb. 24, 2013, event, which brought 200 people, Dame and Skinner said. That Repair Café took place shortly after a San Jose Mercury News article about it, which led to people lined up down Homer Street all the way to the St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Skinner said.

Two others remember that day well: Maia and Greg Coladonato. The Mountain View residents had brought a printer to be fixed and ended up leaving with the idea to start another Repair Café.

"We asked Peter if Mountain View was too close," Maia said, "and he said, 'No!'"

Skinner said he would like to see Repair Café's in every community. With his help, the Coladonatos founded the Mountain View Repair Café and held their first event on Oct. 27, 2013.

"It's great to see that there is a demand for this," Maia said. "It's amazing to watch people fix things; it's an awesome energy."

The Palo Alto and Mountain View events also spurred a Sunnyvale group to start its own Repair Café. With help from the local library, the Sunnyvale organizers held their first event on Sept. 27.

Fixers keep fixing

Many of the fixers and apprentices spread their talents around, helping in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale. The next Repair Café in Palo Alto will kick off at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 25. The four-hour fix-it fest will take place at the Museum of American Heritage, 351 Homer Ave., Palo Alto.

The same core team will lead the way: Skinner overseeing the action, Eaton joining fixers to repair appliances and Garwin guiding the apprentices. All of it will happen in the Museum of American Heritage garage, and considering it's Palo Alto, that seems fitting.


Upcoming Repair Café's

Date: Oct. 25

Time: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Location: The Museum of American Heritage, 351 Homer Ave., Palo Alto

Info: Repair Café Palo Alto

Volunteer: Repair Café Palo Alto volunteering


Date: Nov. 15 in Mountain View

Time: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Location: Hacker Dojo, 599 Fairchild Drive, Mountain View

Info: Repair Café Mountain View

Volunteer: or 650-417-FIX-1 (3491)


Related content:

Apprentices gain real-world experience

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Like this comment
Posted by Washers
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2015 at 12:08 pm

I sent an email but have not heard back...

I have 3 catastrophically broken front loader washing machines, none older than 6 years old. I let the kids take them apart recently, which they did carefully so all the parts are there. I was going to let them sell them on eBay, but I realized between two of the machines are all the parts to make a working machine (compatible parts). One has a bad bearing path but good inner and outer drum, and the other a good bearing path but a bad inner and outer drum.

It wouldn't be easy, but it would be possible to put a complete machine together. One of the kids is very mechanical, remembers how it all came apart, and would be interested in putting one together if one of the volunteers is up to the challenge. It would result in a working Miele front loader that we would donate to a family who could use it, instead of a lot of parts and scrap metal.

I sent repair cafe an email but didn't hear back -- anyone??

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