Repairing, restoring and reusing in mid-Sussex repair cafés

Chailey repair café in action. Photo credit: Alison Rees.

BBC1’s The Repair Shop, filmed at the Weald & Downland Museum, is now a prime-time staple.  Following worn treasures restored and reunited with their overjoyed owners is soothing viewing, and introduces viewers to the possibilities of repairing and restoring items rather than discarding them.

The original concept came from Martine Postma, who started up a repair café in Amsterdam in 2009.  The network is now a global phenomenon, with 2,368 cafés happening regularly, and her Repair Café Foundation gives advice and help to start up new ones.

The first UK branch opened in London in July 2012, with Brighton beginning just four months later. I went along to Chailey, set up by Bryan McAlley in 2018, and to Lindfield, started by Trevor Carpenter last year, to find out more.  They are usually held monthly on a Saturday morning at a community venue, and unlike the BBC version, happily deal with everyday items for practical use.  Some 60-70 per cent of items, on average, are fully repaired.

Towards the circular economy

The Repair Café Foundation’s stated aims are “to make repair… part of the local community again… to maintain and spread repair expertise… to promote social cohesion by bringing together neighbours from all walks of life.”

Wasteful consumer culture has brought us the dangers of climate change, widespread pollution and some 220 million tonnes of waste in the UK in one year alone.  A local repair café is one of those ideas that seems long overdue.  People come along either because they lack the right equipment, or the confidence to take something apart, or the funds needed to replace the item, and because commercial repair facilities are scarce, with planned obsolescence now routine.  

Lindfield’s tally of May repairs. Photo credit: Alison Rees.

What to do

The process is simple.  On entering, you fill in a one-page form and sign a necessary disclaimer.  You’re then assigned to repairers.  Refreshments are available, and you are encouraged to sit in while your item is worked on and learn more about it.  There are books to read on DIY, making the cafés an addition to the trend of empowerment seen, for example, in video tutorials on YouTube.  Either your goods are fixed or you’re advised which parts to obtain and invited to return with them. Occasionally defeat is admitted. (Be sure this happens offscreen on The Repair Shop!)  You leave a donation of your choice to help keep things running, and go on your way.

The UK currently has well over 200 repair cafés, largely thanks to the indefatigable energy of organisers like Bryan and Trevor, and a regular band of willing volunteers who repair, administer and bake for the café.  Many, but far from all, are retired, and a visit feels like a step in the direction of sustainability and, perhaps equally important, a revival of community spirit.  At each bustling café, I saw flyers for other local events and initiatives, evidence of clear interest from the local council, and pride in the endeavour. In the case of the Chailey café, this has even resulted in a book.

Chailey repair café’s infographic banner. Photo credit: Alison Rees.

Cupcakes, ceramics and community

At both cafés, all the repairers and organisers I spoke to were friendly and enthusiastic. “If you’ve had a bad week at work, it’s a breath of fresh air to come here,” said one volunteer at Lindfield, between retrieving completed forms. I wondered what motivated the repairers.  “It’s nice to be sociable,” a full-time horologist explained, “when most of the time I’m alone in my workshop.” 

A steady stream of satisfied customers headed for the door with working hoovers and sharpened shears.  I asked if they covered their costs, for venue hire, insurance, publicity and basic spares, and currently they do.  

At Lindfield, they’ve made enough to buy toys for the children’s play area, and, at Chailey, some equipment cupboards for storage. It’s good news for the venues, too, as their traditional local authority funding is dwindling: repair cafés could bring a new lease of life for churches, libraries and other community spaces.  

So, go on, locate your nearest repair café, take that shirt that needs darning, or that cracked china plate, and go along for a cupcake and to see how it’s done.  The issue of sustainability applies to the concept of repair cafés themselves, of course, and they will benefit from more support. That said, their future seems bright, and ours just that little bit brighter in consequence.

Lindfield’s horticultural advisors, Richard Hilson and Neal McNamara:“Bring us your plants!” Photo credit: Alison Rees.

Many thanks to Trevor Carpenter at Lindfield and Bryan McAlley at Chailey.

Lindfield Repair Café generally runs on the first Saturday of each month at the United Reform Church on the High Street, from 10am until 1pm. Contact them at: lindfieldrepaircafe@gmail.com

Chailey Repair Café generally runs on the second Saturday of each month at St Peter’s Church, from 10am until 1pm. Contact them at: chaileyrc@gmail.com

Follow @SussexBylines on social media