Fixer Fair volunteers can bring your broken gadgets back to life
Braving the nippy cold of an October evening in Somerville's Union Square, Lisa Calderon approached an open-air table covered with soldering irons, electrical equipment, and tools.
"I have an iron," she announced, rummaging in her bag and pulling out an electric Rowenta-brand steam iron.
"We can fix that," said Michael Beach, an electrical engineer wearing glasses and a goatee. "What's wrong with it?"
Calderon explained that the iron, which she's owned for about a decade, stopped getting hot enough about a year ago. She'd given it a hearty shake, which seemed to help for a few weeks, but eventually it became unusable again.
Beach turned the iron over in his hands, fetched a set of Torx wrenches, and used them to remove four bolts and pop the plastic panel off the back. With a little more work, he got the control panel off and used a multimeter to start checking the connections inside.
Beach's methodical process — inspecting a broken object, taking it apart, and working through its components to see if it can be repaired — is typical of volunteers at the annual Fixer Fair, which also featured sewing machines for mending clothing and luggage, an area for tuning up bicycles, and a knife-sharpening station.
The fair is just one event in a growing Boston-area fix-it-yourself scene, harking back to an earlier era of tinkers and tinkerers. Since last year, Bolton's Repair Café, a local chapter of an international network of similar events that began in Amsterdam in 2009, has held regular drop-in clinics where handy volunteers fix visitors' broken things. The Somerville Bike Kitchen and "makerspace" Parts and Crafts both run open studios once a week to repair bicycle problems. And at Artisan's Asylum, just up the street from Union Square, participants at Circuit Hacking Night are encouraged to bring in damaged gadgets for diagnosis and repair. Together, these small initiatives add up to a reaction against an age of cheap stuff and planned obsolescence — led by people who prefer, for environmental or practical reasons, to repair broken possessions rather than discard them.
Fixer Fair is the brainchild of Dina Gjertsen. Last year, Gjertsen opened the Somerville Tool Library, a lending library open six days a week that lets members check out tools including a sledgehammer, a drill, an air compressor, and even a hedge trimmer. Membership is $50 per year, which is used to maintain and expand the collection.
Fixer Fair and the Tool Library are closely intertwined, Gjertsen said. Both are about giving people the resources they need to repair things they otherwise would have needed to replace. She believes that doing so provides a sense of agency that is easy to lose in an era of mysterious, technologically complex devices.
"The most ethical thing to do with any electronic device is to repair it and keep using it," said Gjertsen, who has worked as a web developer and as an exhibit operations supervisor at the Boston Museum of Science. "But we're very discouraged by our culture and by corporations. I just replaced the screen on my Kindle, and it's basically designed to break the case when you take it apart. That's deliberate. There's no reason it couldn't be held together with four screws in the back."
Realizing that something can be repaired instead of thrown away, she says, can be a wakeup call.
"A lot of things people bring to Fixer Fair are things they don't actually think can be fixed," she said. "They bring something they've pulled out of the basement, or a record player that they've trash-picked. But when they actually work, the look on their face is priceless."
This year, visitors to the Fixer Fair brought devices including a mini fridge, a heavy-duty stapler, a case of photography equipment, and an electric keyboard. Duncan Reid, a graphic artist who lives in Quincy, brought an ice crusher. A volunteer took apart the motor, jiggled the pieces around, and reassembled them. He plugged it in — and the ice crusher rasped back to life.
"I just think this is so cool," Reid said. "I love the idea of fixing things."
Notably, the goal at events like Fixer Fair is to help people help themselves — not to turn a profit. Somerville Bike Kitchen, for example, provides a space near Davis Square, loaded with bicycle repair tools, to anybody who wants to come by to fix up or upgrade their bikes.
"We're not at all in competition with bike shops," said Zach Hirschtritt, a volunteer at Somerville Bike Kitchen. "We have no money and have applied to no grants. And we want to keep it there."
Back at the fair, Beach hypothesized that Calderon's iron was failing to get hot enough because there was something wrong with the automatic shutoff. He consulted with another volunteer, sketched a wiring diagram, then snipped the sensor out of the circuit entirely. They snapped the casing back onto the iron, put the bolts back in, and plugged it in. It quickly grew warm, then too hot to touch.
"Do you have a fire extinguisher?" asked Mike Wells, another volunteer, impishly.
Calderon asked Beach whether she could buy him a hot drink as a perk for fixing the iron, but he demurred. Having saved the iron from being thrown away, for him, was reward enough.
"I love to see things not go to the landfill," Beach said. "And I like demystifying technology, as much as I can."