Countering Disposable Culture, One Repair At A Time

I’ve been noticing an interesting trend arising over the last few months, and it’s one that gives me a small grain of hope for our future. It started in the pages of alternative weeklies, and slowly spread to more mainstream media sources, and began to be picked up on websites that collate news of note for people interested in environmental issues. It’s the rise, or really the return, of repair shops.

There was a time when repairshops were ubiquitous; you could get typewriters serviced, shoes re-soled, electronics fixed, clothes mended. The fees were often small unless it was a complex or rush job, and the people who did the work often had years of experience in the trade, and a knack for making anything functional again even if you thought it was irreparably broken.

The last time I had one of my typewriters serviced was in 1997, right before the last place in town that even did that closed, and he oiled the works and got everything working smoothly and perfectly and made something that was close to 100 years old work like new again. That same typewriter is in bad need of a servicing today, but it can’t get one, because there’s no one to do it here (that I know of); it’s a skill that’s been lost.

My typewriters are relics of a larger era when people bought things with the intent not of throwing them away when they started to show signs of wear, but of fixing them, repairing them, and nursing them along to keep them functional. Items were designed to be replaced only when you absolutely had to, and they were built with long life and servicing in mind. They were easier to service, but they also had sturdy casings and components to ensure they would stand up over time, rather than failing and requiring replacement within a few scant years.

I don’t want to sound utterly nostalgic here, but there is something to be said for a time when things were built solid and built to last. There’s a reason antiques from 100 years ago are still usable and functional, why furniture that looks delicate is surprisingly robust, why we keep using and treasuring things that are old. Those things come with history, which makes them precious, but they also come with craft, which makes them extremely valuable and extremely unlike many of the disposable things we’re surrounded by today.

Which is why I got intrigued when I read a profile of two men starting an electronics repair shop in a city I’ve forgotten the name of, now. And about a man in San Francisco who mends clothes. And about the resurgence of cobbling in one of the Southern states. All of these things point to some very interesting social and ecological trends that have me excited as an advocate for turning away from disposable culture, for changing the nature of consumerism to make it something more sustainable and functional in the long term, even though in the short term, corporations don’t benefit from it.

People are starting repair businesses because there’s a demand for it, and they’re having to relearn some skills in the process. Some are wisely turning to an older generation of people, those who ran the shops that closed when everyone became obsessed with always buying the latest and greatest. Others are blazing their own trail, some of them learning the hard way that experience actually can be incredibly useful for avoiding common pitfalls and mistakes. In all cases, these shops are starting, and thriving, because people want them and are using them and are excited about the possibility of getting items repaired.

Obviously, one factor in that is the economy. When the cost of living is rising while wages fall or remain steady, people need to be more thrifty about the items they have, and they cannot afford to hastily get rid of them. Hence, there’s much more interest in learning how to stretch them further and working on ways to extend their usable lifetime. Instead of throwing out a pair of boots when the soles start to go, you take them to a cobbler and have the soles replaced. While you’re at it, you might have the cobbler condition the leather and tighten the grommets to make sure the boots look good and stay in good shape. You have an incentive to care for these items because they’re expensive to replace.

And it’s possible that people are also responding to growing concerns about the nature of consumer culture and the rise of disposable products. If they are, that’s a good sign, because it shows that they might be breaking free of marketing and striking out on their own path, which is no mean feat. When you’re surrounded by cultural feedback telling you to buy disposable items and to think of products as things that should be easily thrown away when they start to break down, instead of being repaired, you definitely tend to internalise that, even if you have a stated claim of caring about the environment. When you decide to go a different route and repair items rather than tossing them, you’re thumbing your nose at a huge industry with a massive marketing juggernaut behind it.

Are there more repair shops than before, or are they just getting more prominent? Are people who were struggling to keep their shops open having an easier time of it now that there’s more interest in repair, or I am viewing a selective and biased media sample that doesn’t reflect the real state of affairs in this country? It’s hard to tell, but I will note that this is the kind of economic growth politicians should be promoting, because it’s one that creates a sense of longevity, history, and community alongside, of course, jobs.