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Good times for repair shops and secondhand stores

Economizing Americans look for ways to stretch the useful life of everything from shoes to computers.

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Last week, vociferous outcry from thrift stores prompted federal regulators to reconsider. The shops no longer will be required to certify that goods for children younger than 12 meet the lead standard, but neither are they permitted to sell items in violation – leaving them in a murky gray legal zone.

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It's one of many ways in which policy and market oversights vex this less-visible segment of the economy. Another looming problem: replaceable parts.

"What's different from the last time we had a recession is that a lot of the products are not repairable because parts are not made for them – they are considered disposable," says Vicky Evans, owner of Phil's Electric Center in San Francisco, which fixes everything from vacuums to countertop appliances.

The imminent national switchover to digital television represents another challenge for reuse and could send a lot of televisions to the landfill. While the Federal Communications Commission is offering coupons to offset the cost of converter boxes for older televisions, the program is poorly designed for low-income people who need the coupons most, says Mr. Buckelew. Mailing away for coupons isn't convenient and the online application is not accessible for everyone, he says. The government has already run out of funding for additional coupons, and few stores are selling cheap converters, he adds.

He has overcome past obstacles to electronics reuse to build a computer repair and reuse nonprofit called Oakland Technology Exchange West. He takes old computers off the hands of businesses, fixes them up, and gives them to students and needy families or sells them to schools and nonprofits. Many of these machines, about eight years old and widely considered obsolete, can be souped up to perform well even compared with new computers, says Buckelew.

Computers typically operate more slowly after a few years because they become bogged down with files. Buckelew's team cleans off all the software and installs older versions of Windows that Microsoft now makes available to certified resellers. Add some additional open-source programs and some additional memory, and the computer can meet the needs of most users.

Buckelew sweetens the deal by including classes on how to use the computer and free repairs for life.

"Computers are expensive and anything that helps my family with furthering their education is really important," says Sheri Stewart, a recipient of one of Buckelew's computers. The classes, though, were the big draw: "If you bought in a store you don't know how to set it up, the dos and dont's, nothing."

Buckelew sees computer reuse as an way to ameliorate a number of social problems, including pollution and poverty.

"There's still a digital divide [between socioeconomic classes]. And there's this e-waste stream where people are throwing out these computers that are perfectly good. Talk about two problems with one solution," he says.

Before the economic downturn started mainstreaming the reuse trend, the reuse market tended to attract people who saw it as conserving both their money and the planet's resources, says John Lastovicka, a frugality expert at Arizona State University in Tempe. People who voluntarily try to reuse items often view the effort as an enjoyable challenge, his research has found.

"Unfortunately, part of this is probably a lost art. The 'greatest generation' that lived through the Depression, this was part of their day-to-day behavior," says Professor Lastovicha. Far fewer people have carried on that tradition because it's time-consuming and can be something that people laugh at. "It can be a tough sell, unless you have to do it – which is what's happened."