I enter the cafe and see a number of people sitting at tables around the room. The lady at the front desk welcomes me and asks for my name and what I’m here for. ‘A broken bike mirror, a pair of torn wool leggings and some torn hiking pants’, I tell her. ‘Ah, you’re doing the bike journey!’ They’d been expecting me, and are going to make sure I’m well looked after.
They let me wheel my bike inside the door, and then a man named Lubosh promptly appears to offer his services. I hand him my broken rear-view mirror, which had snapped off when my heavily loaded bike toppled over with a loud crash. Lubosh scrutinises it, then leads me to one of the tables. Together we get stuck into the challenge of taking the mirror apart and finding a way to re-attach it to my bike.
This, of course, is no ordinary cafe. Each of the tables around the room is a station set up to do different types of repairs. There are ones for bikes, furniture and woodwork, jewellery, battery-operated appliances, clothes, and there’s even one for sharpening knives and small garden tools.
Lubosh is a volunteer, as are all the people working at the different stations. He tells me that where possible they try to teach people how to repair the item themselves, rather than just doing it for them.
This is the general principle of this ‘Repair Cafe’, a free monthly event set up in response to the vast amounts of stuff that people throw away; things with almost nothing wrong that would be fine after a simple repair. A problem is that most people don’t know how to mend things, or they get told it’s cheaper to buy new. The Repair Cafe aims to change this.
‘Ding, ding!’ A bell rings. I’m not sure why.
A tap on the shoulder causes me to turn around to find that Joy has arrived, the lovely lady who hosted me at her house in Albury last night. She’s here to get some knives sharpened, and I wander over to watch her apply a whetstone to the blade of a large kitchen knife.
Another volunteer comes over with a tray full of free cakes, offering me one, as well as a cup of tea.
‘Ding, ding!’ — The bell again. I wonder if it’s to signal the end of a volunteer shift.
At last Lubosh and I successfully re-attach the rear-view mirror to my bike. I’ll now be able to see traffic behind me without always having to turn my body and send my bike careening sideways.
Now to repair my torn clothes. I’m directed to the ‘sewing room’ in a space off to the side. This turns out to be the domain of ‘the sewing ladies’, a delightful squadron of women, armed with sewing machines and keen for a chat and a laugh. They’re happy to help mend clothes, they tell me, but not to do alterations.
There’s a queue, so I add my name to the list then stand back and watch. A young girl next to me is learning to stitch up a broken piece on her handbag. She’s doing a remarkably good job of it, and it comes out looking as good as new.
A few days earlier I had met up with the organiser of this event, a delightful lady named Lizette. It was thanks to her that the volunteers here had been expecting me. I would later talk further with her to find out how this event came to be.
The concept began in the Netherlands with a woman named Marteen Postma, who grew frustrated with her broken items that were likely to end up in a waste bin and so started a neighbourhood repair cafe. From this a movement grew, and there are now about 1,800 such Cafés around the world, with a handful of these in Australia.
Lizette first heard of the idea in early 2015 and was intrigued. After organising seed funding, a venue, insurance and lots of promotion, they held their first Repair Cafe that same year in the local Senior Citizens Centre. They later moved it here to the Sustainable Activity Centre, which was a perfect fit.
They’ve been holding it monthly ever since, and it’s grown to one of the largest Repair Cafes in Australia, with almost 20 volunteers each session. They also often hold feature sessions, bringing in a specialist to teach, say, upholstery cleaning, or leatherwork, or bra repairs, or Christmas decoration repairs. Each time these bring in new visitors.
Lizette says they averaged about 36 items repaired per session in the beginning, but at their most recent event they repaired 92 items, with a 79% repair success rate.
She tells me that her original motivation was an environmental one, but says that another wonderful thing to come out of it is the many acts of kindness between strangers.
‘Ding, ding!’ — I’m learning to ignore it now.
Soon it’s my turn and I hand over my clothes. The machines whir away, a lady named Ann sewing up my wool leggings, and Imelda working on my hiking pants. We all chat while they work, and Imelda tells me that she first learnt to sew when she was a girl and made her first dress. She’s been sewing ever since, and just loves it. Here she gets to do what she enjoys while meeting people and supporting a good cause.
And just like that, the numerous tears in my hiking pants are fixed, including a big tear in my pocket from where it got caught on a barbed-wire fence. This is one of only two pairs I’ve brought on this trip, and it’s beginning to look like a patchwork quilt of numerous repair jobs, including some parts I’ve sewn up by hand.
My thermal leggings are finished too — one of the legs that kept threatening to tear off completely is now firmly re-attached. I salute and thank the sewing ladies and say farewell.
As I sign out at the front desk I ask what the dinging of the bell is all about. They tell me it’s to declare when an item has been successfully fixed. They ring it a few more times to celebrate the items I’ve just had repaired.
Wheeling my bike out past the bike repair station, I say farewell to Lubosh and thank him again. As I go to mount my bike and ride away, I hear a big tearing sound as the tail of my shirt rips. What!? I’ve only brought a couple of shirts with me on my journey, and this is my favourite that I wear every day.
Feeling ridiculous, I turn around, head back into the Repair Cafe and to the sewing room. ‘Haha! You didn’t want to leave us or something?’, say the ladies with a laugh.
Thanks for following my journey! Can you donate to help keep me pedalling forwards?