The basement of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Port Jervis, New York, is lit with bright fluorescent lights. Clothes are piled high on tables pushed against the walls. In winter, the space is used as a warming station: a place where people without homes can find a hot meal and a warm place to stay. No one is coming here for warmth today – it’s 85 degrees Fahrenheit outside – but a sign by the door explains in large lettering made with blue masking tape: REPAIR CAFE, 1–4 P.M. TODAY! FREE!

I’m carrying an espresso machine that belongs to friends (bougie, I know). The steam wand doesn’t work, and I’m hoping someone can fix it.

The repair café movement arrived in New York’s Hudson Valley in 2013. Since then, volunteers have started over fifty such “cafés” in the area. The concept is simple: people bring a broken household item – garden clippers, a chair, kitchen knives, a lamp, even jewelry – to a neighborhood location, and volunteers try to fix it for them. If a spare part is needed, the item’s owner will purchase it, but the labor is free.

Only four years before the first repair café opened in New York State, Dutch journalist and environmentalist Martine Postma founded the world’s first in Amsterdam. Distressed by “throwaway culture,” in which businesses design products with intentionally short lifespans, she realized that many people had lost the skills of repair. To rebuild a repair culture, Postma gathered her fellow fixers and invited Amsterdam residents to bring their broken items. “A repair café is a neighborhood meeting place where you, with help from skillful volunteers, can repair your things,” she told journalists. “It’s fun: you meet people from the neighborhood and you also help the environment.” The movement grew quickly to 2,500 repair cafés worldwide.

Wesley mends a chair at the repair café in Port Jervis, New York. Photograph by Alan Koppschall.

Pete Marchetto and his wife, Katie, run the Port Jervis repair café. Pete fixes electrical and mechanical items and Katie patches jeans, mends quilts, and repairs other textile items. In a back corner, Wesley, a professional handyman, cuts a broken slat off a wooden chair with an oscillating saw. Seated at a table near the middle of the space, another volunteer sharpens kitchen knives and garden tools.

“I’ve never fixed one of these before,” Pete tells me when he sees the espresso machine I’m carrying, “but I’ll see what I can do.” He plugs it into the wall. It makes a hissing noise as it starts to heat up.

Pete and Katie have been fixing things for years. They were graduate students when their washing machine broke down. Pete remembers: “We get the repair guy to come out and take a look at it. He tells us that the circuit board needs replacing, which would cost around $300 for the part and $200 for the labor. I ask him if I can take a look, as my background is in electronics. I take the cover off and see that there is one little chip with a tiny divot in the top of it. I find the exact chip online to replace it: it’s 68 cents. Two minutes of soldering work, and we have a working washing machine.” Since then, Pete and Katie have tried to repair their broken items rather than throw them out. When they heard about the repair cafés, they organized one.

“We like to see ourselves as repair coaches,” Pete tells me as he adjusts the knobs on the espresso machine. “As much as we’re fixing people’s broken stuff, we’re also teaching them how to repair it the next time it breaks.” He points over at Wesley, who is explaining the bonding properties of different kinds of wood glue to the woman who owns the chair he’s fixing. While we are talking, Pete has turned on the steam wand. It seems to work again. He explains to me that possibly a piece of limescale, stuck in its silicone tubing, worked itself loose on the drive down. “Sometimes, you just look at a broken item and it repairs itself,” he says with a smile.

As a Port Jervis local, Pete feels a responsibility to his hometown, one of the poorest in New York. This motivated him and Katie to found the repair café. By offering to repair broken items for free, they hoped to build a culture of repair among their neighbors. They tell me that repair shop owners in other towns, rather than dreading the arrival of a free repair café or fearing the loss of business, welcomed them. Once people learn that a broken item can be fixed, they are much less likely to throw it out and buy a new one.

Pete and Katie see their small acts of repair as part of the task of Christians to help renew a broken world. “Christ takes our brokenness and our sin and restores us because of his love for us. As Christians, we are called to imitate Christ. If we can’t repair the brokenness of the world, at least we can repair our neighbor’s grass clippers, his chair, or his lamp.”