Repair your broken items for free at Repair Cafe Chicago

The Repair Cafe is open on the second Saturday of every month at the Sulzer Regional Library in Lincoln Square from 10 a.m. to noon. (Damita Menezes/MEDILL)
The Repair Cafe is open on the second Saturday of every month at the Sulzer Regional Library in Lincoln Square from 10 a.m. to noon. (Damita Menezes/MEDILL)

By Damita Menezes

Medill Reports

If you have any broken items or torn clothes lying around in your home, bring them to the repair cafe. Its volunteers will attempt to repair almost anything.

Dara Salk, a founding volunteer of the Repair Cafe in Chicago, has been leading a dedicated team of volunteers in an effort to promote sustainability and foster a stronger community bond. The Repair Cafe, located within Sulzer Regional Library on the city’s North Side, has been repairing broken items and torn garments for more than a decade.

The Repair Cafe operates for two hours on the second Saturday of each month, providing a designated time and place for community members to seek assistance with repairing their cherished belongings.

“People come in with the items that they have, and we do our best to fix them. Not everything is fixed, but we do our best,” Salk said.

The volunteer repair coaches, who devote their time and expertise, strive to fix a diverse range of items brought in by attendees. From rewiring toys to restitching stuffed animals, jewelry and even clothes, the Repair Cafe’s handy volunteers skillfully tackle various challenges.

“They’re amazing what they can pull out of their hats. They can fix anything. They come with huge toolboxes. And this gives them an outlet for their joy,” Salk said.

Salk’s journey with the Repair Cafe began approximately 10 to 12 years ago while working as the community outreach director for former Ald. Ameya Pawar. Salk sought permission to establish the Repair Cafe out of their office with Forward Chicago, a local nonprofit organization. Determined to ensure the long-term viability of the project, she even self-funded the initial expenses.

The concept of the Repair Cafe originated in Amsterdam by Martine Postma. The Repair Cafe International Foundation, a nonprofit organization, is transforming communities around the world by reintroducing the culture of repairing. Started in Amsterdam 14 years ago, it has now expanded to over 40 countries, offering a unique space where volunteers come together to help neighbors fix their broken items, reducing waste and promoting sustainability.

Postma, a former journalist, conceived the idea in 2009 while writing about waste reduction and prevention. She recognized the lack of repair culture in daily life contributed significantly to the mounting waste problem.

“Why is it that we create so much waste in our daily lives? And then one of the things that I came up with is that we no longer make repairs,” Postma said.

Postma established the first Repair Cafe in her neighborhood as a testing ground. The response was overwhelmingly positive, prompting others to express interest in replicating the model in their communities.

The Repair Cafe concept is simple but effective. Individuals with broken items visit their local Repair Cafe, where they find skilled volunteers from their neighborhood who specialize in various repairs. Together, they assess and examine the items to identify the underlying issues.

“In many cases, items can perfectly well be repaired and it’s not so difficult at all. Often, it’s just cleaning or supplying or lubricating. That’s kind of simple maintenance actions, basically,” Postma said.

Coffee makers, toasters, blenders, lamps and vacuum cleaners are among the most common items brought to Repair Cafes. However, people are encouraged to bring anything they can carry. Although mobile phones and electronics can be repaired, the availability of specialized skills may vary across different Repair Cafes.

“I was raised by parents who went through the Depression, and you didn’t throw things away. You fix them, you repair them. People are very happy to come and try to get their stuff fixed, and we’re happy to be there for them,” Salk said.

Repair Cafe operates on a nonprofit model, offering its services for free. However, participants are invited to make voluntary donations, which are then used to purchase specific tools needed for repairs or organize team-building activities for the volunteers.

Postma initially worried about finding enough volunteers with the necessary skills, but she discovered that interested individuals with repair expertise flocked to participate once the idea became known. Word of mouth played a significant role in attracting talented repairers to the cause.

Looking toward the future, Postma envisions Repair Cafes in every community worldwide, creating a global movement dedicated to reducing waste and preserving resources. She said she hopes that as repair culture is revitalized, professional repairers will regain their importance, making a living from their skills. Currently, the prevalence of inexpensive new products often discourages people from opting for professional repairs, leading to a culture of disposability.

To facilitate the establishment of Repair Cafes globally, the organization offers a comprehensive starter kit available on its website in five languages. The kit provides guidance on various aspects of setting up and running a Repair Cafe, including finding a suitable venue, selecting tools, creating publicity and ensuring a safe working environment.

Co-host of the cafe in Chicago, Lenore Kimmel, who repairs jewelry, said her favorite part is seeing people wear the pieces again.

“The time I repaired a cross to a necklace that a woman had gotten in Rome blessed by the pope. And when I fixed it, she was just so overjoyed, she had tears in her eyes. It was just amazing,” Kimmel said.

Damita Menezes is a graduate student in the video & broadcast specialization. Connect with her on her website