There’s no permanent solution for where to bring Long Island’s garbage when the Brookhaven Landfill closes next year, and the fight to reduce the waste we all generate, long an uphill battle, is one we will all face, in the privacy of our homes, as we chose what to keep and what to discard. 

It’s a lonely battle, driven by an economy that depends on food packaging, cheap overseas labor and consumer demand, with an occasional reminder to keep the things that spark joy in our lives.

As a haze of smoke borne on the jet stream from wildfires in Quebec began to blanket the East End in early June, there was a spark of community at the Riverhead Senior Center in Aquebogue on Saturday, June 3, as people brought broken household items to a group of volunteer repair coaches, who shared their mending skills and, in the process, shared a radically simple vision of mutual care for our world and the things in it that we want to keep.

Repair Cafés are new to the North Fork, but they’re entrenched parts of the community in craftier parts of the United States like the Hudson Valley and Vermont.

North Fork Environmental Council Vice President Margaret de Cruz has organized two prior Repair Cafés at Greenport’s Floyd Memorial Library, and people found out about the Aquebogue Café the old fashioned way — by word of mouth. A steady stream of residents brought in items to be repaired throughout the afternoon, ranging from yard care equipment to small electronics and lamps to worn out jackets and backpacks. 

Mary Daum of South Jamesport was offering her services sewing, patching and mending sweaters, what she referred to as “fiber arts.”

“It makes me feel good to make someone happy,” she said. 

She was busy restringing a wind chime, making sure the chimes lined up and were still able to ring true when a reporter visited.

“This is really more engineering than sewing, said Ms. Daum, a founding board member of the Tesla Science Center in Shoreham, a herculean effort to preserve Nicola Tesla’s laboratory and build a non-profit science center around it. 

After working to preserve the Tesla laboratory, “working for an hour on a wind chime is not a big deal,” she said. 

At the next table, Patti Robinson was also helping people repair their clothing, showing off both invisible mending skills and “visible repairs,” which, like patches, can become a part of a worn piece of clothing’s aesthetic.

She was wearing a t-shirt that said “I’m a Lego master. What’s your superpower?”

Ms. Robinson, an artist, said she found out about the Repair Café through an Instagram post.

“I’m always mending things for people,” she said. She also loves to buy vintage cashmere sweaters, which often have moth holes in them, which led her to work out innovative techniques for visible repairs.

Not long after the café started, eight-year-old Leah walked in with a keychain with a plush flamingo attached to it, a gift she received in school that her dog had tried to tear apart. With a few quick stitches from Ms. Robinson, the flamingo was as good as new. Then Leah and her mother made the rounds of repair tables, asking for help with a guitar with a broken neck (the coaches said it was under too much tension to repair, but they could hang the guitar on the wall as a piece of art), and getting a pocket knife sharpened by Vince Murray, a welder from Hopewell Junction in the Hudson Valley.

Mr. Murray said he has been coming down to the NFEC’s repair cafes because his girlfriend lives here, but there’s a café almost every weekend in the Hudson Valley, including the most well-established café in New Paltz (see www.repaircafehv.org for more info).

He fixes lawnmower blades, broken lawn furniture, baby wagons, garden tools that need sharpening, ornaments and “anything small and metal.”

The one rule, he said, is that the item has to be small enough that you can carry it into the repair café. 

‘It’s nice to see somebody who’s had a thing for 50 years and they bring it to you and it’s fixed,” he said. “They attach emotions to objects, and when it’s fixed, they’re pretty delighted. To share that joy with them is pretty nice.”

Mr. Murray said that anyone who asks why he shares his skills for free “probably wouldn’t understand my answer.”

He likened the cafés to the biblical notion that if you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, he’ll eat for the rest of his life.

Recent Stony Brook graduate Kirby Schneider, an occupational therapist, stopped by the café with Jake Barnes to get some advice about her Master’s Degree capstone project to bring a repair café to Shelter Island.

She said she’s already held focus groups with Shelter Island residents who were excited about the prospect — the school has offered its tech room, and people of all ages were enthusiastic.

“I was surprised how many kids showed an interest in hands-on skills,” she said, adding that another Shelter Island resident, a recent widow, said she would like to learn how to use her husband’s tools to fix things that he’d always fixed for them both.

“Seeing intergenerational friendships form is a great thing,” she said.

Mr. Barnes said he realized that, as a veterinary technician, he also has skills he can share, including helping people learn how to give their pets medication, and repairing collars and harnesses.

“We’re trying to get people to realize ‘I don’t have to throw this away,” said Ms. de Cruz, the café organizer. “We don’t have any more room in our landfills. People think there’s an ‘away,’ but there is not. It stays here.”

Ms. de Cruz urges people who are new to the idea of repair cafés to watch the documentary “The Story of Stuff” by Annie Leonard.

The film points out the environmental and human costs of the cheap goods that industrialized nations consume.

“If you think things are cheap, it’s the people who make them, and the earth, that’s paying,” she said. “So much of this is about changing mindsets.”

Randy Wade of Greenport came by with a blouse that needed new buttons, and Ms. Daum brought out a button collection for her to peruse.

“I’m a repeat customer,” said Ms. Wade, who had brought her bicycle to be repaired at the Greenport café.

Helene Munson of New Suffolk brought her string trimmer to be repaired — a quick job for Mr. Murray, who showed her how to install new string so that she could continue to maintain it herself.

Ms. Munson, an author, then offered her skills at jewelry repair, bringing her eye for detail and her tools and supplies to share with the the crowd.

With snacks on hand and a lot of environmental issues on their minds, the room was as filled with conversation about our dire circumstances and what we can do together to change them. 

NFEC President Mark Haubner urged people in attendance to take a look at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Solid Waste Management Plan — public comments are due June 14.

Mr. Haubner was also instrumental in getting Riverhead Town on board with a new food scrap composting program, where people can bring their food scraps to be composted at the town’s Youngs Avenue yard waste yard. Countertop and undercounter composting bins being sold by the town were available at the repair café and are also being sold at Town Hall West on Pulaski Street.

While many everyday items around our houses are cheaply made and expected to fail, it’s difficult to find technical information about some more technical items, especially electronics, that many of us used to try to repair. Attempting to repair these items can also void their warranty. New York is one of a growing number of states that recently enacted a law requiring manufacturers of digital products to provide information on how to repair those products.

“We’re not going to recycle our way out of this mess,” said Mr. Haubner, who is part of a community group, Taking a Lead on Zero Waste (TALZ), which is looking to get the public involved in understanding our dire garbage situation. “We’ve gone from repairing everything to repairing nothing.”

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

One thought on “North Forkers Dare to Repair

  1. Your article on the Repair Cafe highlights a trend that is most valuable. Repairing objects to use them instead of discarding them in landfills. And bringing people together to help each other complete these tasks. A win, win. I follow the practice of not buying extraneous items of everything, including clothes. This is a way of discarding less, too

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