Paul Magder, a retired electronic technologist along with his wife Fern Mosoff, retired civil servant, and Wai Chu Cheng founded Toronto’s Repair Cafe in 2013. At a Repair Café, people are invited to bring in their broken items like lamps, radio, blenders, hair dryers and zippers, computers, jewelry, bikes and other electronics – and to sit down with a volunteer who won’t just repair them, but also show them how to do it themselves – all this free of cost. Repair Café has been involved in St. James Town for a while and currently have a program running at The Corner 240 space every Monday. We spoke to Paul to understand more on Repair Café, its origin, and how they are able to consistently provide this amazing service to the residents of Toronto.
What inspired you to start Repair Café? Why choose the concept of Repair?
We wanted to find a way to work with our communities to stop the dreadful waste and growing damage to our environment. We heard about the Repair Cafe concept from an article in the New York Times which talked about the original Repair Café in Amsterdam. We decided to try one here and it was an instant success.
Can you share a little about the Café’s history and how it has evolved over the years? What does it mean to you personally?
We started in our neighbourhood of St. Clair Ave. West. Our councillor, Joe Mihevic, connected us with an organization called Skills for Change that had free space for us to use. We spent a couple of months promoting it at eco fairs and other community events and looking for volunteers. The first event was small with about 8 volunteers and 15 items to fix. Many people asked when the next one would be so we said “next month”. The second one was twice as busy with more volunteers and so we kept going every month. After six years, we now travel all over the city with a trailer full of equipment and host all kinds of events. Last year we did 83 repair cafes and we have a volunteer list of over 700 people.
Personally, I love the activity of fixing. Also, I have met many wonderful people from all parts of the city and all walks of life. It is great to know there are so many people who are trying to build up and do good and to be part of the eco-movement in Toronto.
What is your idea of volunteering? How does Repair Café get volunteers? What is the process and how do you recruit your volunteers?
The Repair Café functions so well is because everything is free. We need people to volunteer their time in order to make it happen. We can have as many as 60 volunteers at one event. We now find most of our volunteers after we have an event. When people see what is going on they want to be part of the organization. We also promote with Volunteer Toronto, we use social media and get some media attention (such as the CBC, local papers).
How do Repair Café volunteers manage their work and volunteering hours? Can you shed some light on this?
Volunteers are free to come to as many events as they wish for as long as they wish. We have some that come to every event and some that come only once a year.
How do you manage your expenses and required infrastructure? Are there individuals and organisations who support you. You may credit a few if you would like?
We are not an incorporated organization but a community group. We have no regular funding and so rely on donations for everything we do. All our venues are donated, all the tools and parts are donated as well as food and everybody’s labour. The hardware store CAAM in Kensington Market supplies us with parts. Cobs Bakery supplies us with pastries. We have received several grants that were unsolicited from Lush Cosmetics and the Toronto Rotary Club. All other income is from our donation box.
What according to you has been Repair Café’s biggest success? Do you have a way to measure your impact? Do you believe the initiative has had significant impact on the communities it serves?
Our biggest success is the number of events that we have put on – 83 in 2018. This means we have prevented thousands of items from going to the landfill. We have taught hundreds of people that they can repair things. We have encouraged several other groups to start their own repair events.
What has been your experience with St. James Town Community and Toronto in general? How does the SJT community react to your initiative?
We have had a good response from the SJT community. I am very happy that we have found several volunteers who wish to learn how to repair or already are able to repair. We are optimistic that this repair event can continue independently of Repair Café Toronto in the future.
Do you see any scope for improving community engagement in SJT and how do you propose we can attract more people into something like Repair Café?
I hope that the events themselves will attract attention and the word will spread.
Where do you see Repair Café in the next 10-15 years? How are you planning to have this initiative up and running forever?
One goal is to encourage other groups to establish repair events in their communities like the SJT community. In this way many more opportunities will be available for people to learn to repair. In the long run, Repair Café Toronto will only be one of many groups doing this kind of activity.
Another goal is to establish a permanent location where we can work with other partners such as the Toronto Tool Library to have regular training workshops, conferences and repair events.
Encouraging the government to work with manufacturers to insure that their products are repairable and that anyone can get access to their products in order to repair them is also a goal of ours. We want to help transform our economy so that it is more sustainable and circular and not based on throwing things away.