Fix-it clinics bring the broken to life -- and cut waste

Volunteer David Gamble repairs a toaster.
Volunteer fixer David Gamble repairs a toaster for a Coon Rapids senior citizen, Jan. 31, 2015.
Sasha Aslanian / MPR News

The Coon Rapids Community Center looked like the set of the PBS series "Antiques Roadshow."

But inside, nothing worked. Instead of valuable heirlooms and furniture, the room was full of people toting broken household goods and appliances.

With a little care, much of it soon would be working, thanks to volunteers at the Coon Rapids Fix-It Clinic. It's among a number of new experiments by some Minnesota counties and cities to cut waste — and build community at the same time.

For free, fixers will do their best to make a broken toaster or coffee machine work again, much to the delight of the people who bring them in.

"This is a lamp that my mother-in-law bought 50 years ago — used," said Dick Borchert, who came to the clinic on a recent Saturday. "And I didn't know how to fix it. In a half hour, Gary got it working."

Borchert admitted that tinkering with something that uses electricity scared him.

Vacuum repaired
Aggie Weirens gets some help repairing her vacuum from volunteers Doug Lungstrom (center) and Pat Sullivan.
Sasha Aslanian / MPR News

Volunteer fixer Gary Bank said the old lamp just needed to be rewired. "I haven't seen sockets like that — ever!" he said. "It's fun because I'm an analytical thinker: How does it work? Why doesn't it work? How to fix it?"

Borchert went home to fetch a broken computer in the hope it too could be fixed.

Other residents brought in blown stereo speakers, snapped off broom handles and plugged up floor cleaners to the community center for a three hour fix-it session. The Coon Rapids clinic repaired 200 pounds worth of stuff and sent just 88 pounds of lost causes to the landfill.

It was a first for the northwest Twin Cities suburb, where there is pent-up demand for such help.

Evelyn Peterson, who has lived in the same house for 57 years, brought in two vintage toasters.

"They don't make toasters nowadays," Peterson said. "You buy one and you gotta throw it away and they burn and don't work right. And I kept these because I thought, 'someday maybe I'd get them looked at.'"

Sewing volunteers
Claudia Sinclair sews on her grandmother Vanna Sinclair's 1935 "Black Beauty" sewing machine at the Fix-It Clinic.
Sasha Aslanian / MPR News

Hennepin County started holding fix-it clinics a couple of years ago, and Anoka County is getting into the act.

The City of Andover has held two of them. Andover Recycling Coordinator Cindy DeRuyter stopped by to see how things were going in Coon Rapids.

"Look at all the people that are talking to each other in this community who never knew each other before," she said.

In Coon Rapids, the phone rang off the hook with volunteers offering to help, said Colleen Sinclair, the city's recycling coordinator.

But she had one lingering worry.

"In this day and age of things made differently, and we're a wasteful society, it's easier to buy a toaster than to repair a toaster," Sinclair said. "Will people come?"

Gluing the cat back together
Mary Kalk looks on as volunteer fixer Ed Detman glues two of her cat figurines back together.
Sasha Aslanian / MPR News

More than 30 residents kept 12 fixers busy.

Volunteers listed each item and weighed it to see how many pounds would be saved from the landfill if fixed. They then directed residents to volunteer fixers staked out at tables, ready with their tool boxes and supplies.

Aggie Weirens wanted someone to look at the broken handle on her vacuum.

"I told him it was 10 years old," she said, "but I think it's 20!"

Fixers Pat Sullivan and Doug Lungstrom cut out the bad part of her vacuum handle and connected the good pieces.

There was also good news on Peterson's toasters.

David Gamble and his grandson Nevin fixed them both.

"He is really a patient man," Peterson said of the elder Gamble. "They all are."

"It works now?" Peterson asked.

"Yup, just fine," said Nevin Gamble.

"Oh," Peterson said, "that's hot!"

Repairing Evelyn Peterson's toasters
Evelyn Peterson looks on as three generations of the Gamble family repair her vintage toasters.
Sasha Aslanian / MPR News

Three generations of the Gamble family fix things just for fun. Of course, there's a reason they have a knack for it. David Gamble is a mechanical engineer. His son Jon, is an electrical engineer and daughter in law Nu has a talent for fixing cars.

"But this isn't the kind of stuff I usually work on!" Jon Gamble said with a laugh. Consumers, he said, don't have to be engineers to fix their coffee machines.

"Everybody should be fixing stuff, right? It's just kinda normal home handiwork. Unless you really like spending extra money and throwing stuff away and filling landfills, then you should learn how to fix stuff," he said. "Most of it is just basic repair type things, switches, cords, that kind of thing. It's pretty easy. Everybody can do it!"