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In hopes of reducing waste, Spokane group launches free "repair café"

Spokane now has its first “Repair Café”, where local volunteers fix, or teach repair skills, in hopes of fixing everyday household objects that would normally be thrown away.

I’m at the Perry Street Farmer’s Market, surrounded by toolboxes, a sewing machine and supplies, as well as a few broken objects. Kent Larson, a founding member of Repair Café Spokane, is demonstrating how to fix a broken hair dryer.

I recently threw away mine – but Larson said like many everyday household objects – the problem – a very burnt odor– may have been simpler than I thought.

"Do you know why they often smell weird?" Larson said, "Because hair gets in them, and lint, and they just get hot. So, if you clean off the lint, you don't even need to take them apart, there can get hair stuck in here, and you have long hair, so it'll burn the hair."

Larson said If I’d opened up the blow dryer – I may have been able to deep clean it – which may have helped. Or if the problem was a little more complicated, a melted wire, or a frayed cord, one of the volunteers at Repair Café may have the skills to fix it.

“I have repaired lots of things, all my life, just to give things a longer life,” Larson said. “That's really where we ought to be headed, rather than throw things away and go buy new. If something can be repaired, lets repair it.”

Larson is trained as a mechanical engineer. He said there’s an electrical engineer on their Repair Cafe team, as well as people with skills in sewing, jewelry repair and woodworking.

Repair Café, which was first launched in the Netherlands, now has locations across the world, including Latah County in Idaho, Seattle, Ellensburg, and now, Spokane.

Larson said launching a Spokane location gave him access to a repair manual library, as well as other resources. He said the repairs are free, but members do accept donations to help cover the costs of supplies.

“If you can carry a household item, a toy, some clothing good that's got a rip in it, a household appliance,” he said. “We don't do gas powered engines, we don't want anything big, but if you can bring it in, we'll try to show you it can be repaired, if it can be repaired, and you can help do it.”

Kit Ellingwood, one of several volunteers, has trained in cabinet making, and also knows how to patch and hem clothing.

She said her goal with the Repair Café is to both pass on skills and to provide access to tools not everyone has access to.

“Don't we all have a table, or a chair that has a loose leg or something that isn't that big of a deal to fix,” Ellingwood said, “but if you don't know how, it can seem overwhelming,”.

Ellingwood said she has successfully, and sometimes unsuccessfully, taken apart and fixed quite a few things in her own house, ranging from a washing machine to a wooden cutting board.

“Even if you can't fix it, you were going to throw it away anyways, so if you tear it apart, and you can't figure it out, and if you can't find somebody, or a YouTube video, you haven't lost anything,” she said. “And, it’s kind of fun to tinker around and understand how things work how simple things really are.”

You can find the Repair Café in a booth at the Perry Street Farmer’s Market on the second Thursday of the month until October.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.