Portsmouth Repair Café: Sustainability, Volunteering and Community

Local resident Tamara Groen went along to Portsmouth’s first Repair Café in the hope of fixing her favourite fairy lights, and found an inspiring project focusing on sustainability and community. Now she’s a regular volunteer.

Last December on a Sunday afternoon, I attended a meeting at a house in Pompey I had never been to with people I had never met before. Outside the house, I was greeted by a ‘help yourself’ herb garden which even in winter was teeming with greenery. This was a taste of the sharing community spirit that awaited me inside. A room full of strangers, we were all there with one common aim – to set up Portsmouth’s first Repair Café. I envisaged organising a community project like this would take many months and I certainly did not imagine that by early April,  I would be at the official launch of Portsmouth’s Repair Café.

A broken kettle. A set of intermittent fairy lights. Small items like these littered my home. Not being a practical person myself, I could not find any tradesperson willing to fix them as time after time I was told it was cheaper to chuck it and buy a replacement from Asda. It seemed so wasteful to throw things away that could be fixed. I hate the unquestioning nature of today’s throwaway culture and so had become a hoarder of broken things. My household was despairing as broken and dusty objects slowly took over our living space. If only someone had the time, skill and patience to coax the life back into my favourite cherry red fairy lights.

Those same cherry fairy lights are the reason I found myself first at the home of Clare Seek, the organiser and instigator of Portsmouth’s Repair Café and then three months later, making tea and serving homemade and Foodcycle donated cakes at the trial run of the repair cafe. I watched in awe as repairer Ming from The Makers Guild took the time to revive the fairy lights that had brought me there. It took him a little perseverance and a lot of Sugru to fix them but fix them he did!

The repairers are makers, crafters, tinkerers and geeks who can sew a ripped and beloved cuddly toy, replace the zip in a favourite sweater, solder the stem of a pair of spectacles, investigate a faulty sewing machine/ vacuum cleaner/ e-reader/ insert item here! If you can carry it, they will try their utmost to fix it for you. This is a project with volunteers coming from Havant, Winchester and Gosport as well as Portsmouth itself – all for the pleasure of spending a morning fixing a stranger’s retro hi-fi system, sorting a teenager’s punctured bicycle tire and putting the slither back into a toy snake.

To me, it is like watching a magician work. But these magicians explain the trick to you as they go. Though I may not be a repairer or have any skills in that department, I was determined to be a part of the repair café community. So you will find me welcoming customers, getting tea for the repairers and generally making a happy nuisance of myself. All the people there are volunteers,  from the graphic designer who created the banner advertising the Repair Café to the person escorting you to the next available repairer, they are all giving their time for free to breathe life back into broken things, to share their skills and to stop useable items going to landfill.

The ethos of zero waste can be witnessed at the ‘pay as you feel’ pop-up cafe where plastic tea bags are out and loose leaf tea is in. You will not find any disposable straws or paper napkins and the scrumptious cakes and pastries are home-made by volunteers or donated to us from Foodcycle – another fantastic local community project that provides community meals from surplus food. Many of our volunteers’ cycle and car-share to the pop-up event and organiser Clare cycles in, once in the snow, with all the set-up stuff in her bicycle trailer! We are trying to make our mark through limiting the environmental footprint we leave.

I consider this ethical ethos a bonus to what is already a fantastic community project. What I love the most is circular nature of skill sharing. It is about working with the repairer to fix your broken item. Already I am more confident in tackling sewing tasks as volunteers Denise and Meg took the time to explain a simple stitching technique to me. Next month I will be bringing in my old and clunky bicycle and I am confident I will leave not only with a safer and smoother ride but also knowing what to do the next time the chain falls off.

There is no charge for fixing items, though donations are of course welcomed. In a society where we are encouraged to buy new and buy bigger, I find it refreshing to spend a few hours once a month with people who want to fix things, to chat, to share, to give back and to make the world a better place, one set of fairy lights at a time.

Find out more about the Repair Cafe at their website, on Facebook and on Twitter.