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The art of the fix-it

Members of the Fixers' Collective help New Yorkers repair their broken stuff at no charge, for the sheer joy of it.

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At first, the goal was deconstruction

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The Fixers' Collective was founded in January 2009. At first, remembers Tammy Pittman, the director of Proteus Gowanus and its cofounder, with Mahfouda – the members worked at a long table in the main hall of Proteus. Back then, the focus was more on taking appliances apart, and making art out of the plastic innards and metal guts. But eventually, the group moved to a brightly lit back room and turned its energy toward actually repairing the items.

"It makes people feel proud of themselves – a little less helpless," Ms. Pittman says. "Everything breaks. Everything. These days, and especially with all this electronic equipment, we have no clue – no idea at all – how to fix stuff. We are pretty much at the mercy of our computers, our cellphones. The Fixers' Collective helped us become a little more self-sufficient. It is an attitude as much as anything."

Pittman draws a direct line from the financial crash of 2008 – "which made a lot of people, and certainly us, less inclined to trust the experts" – to the creation of the collective. But it is also true, as Pittman hints, that many Americans worry that they have become more reliant on their belongings and more disconnected about how they work.

A hundred years ago, few household objects would require the intervention of an expert to repair. In 2011, it seems as though everything requires an expert – the iPhone, the flat-screen television, the next-generation Italian coffeemaker. Thus the popularity of books such as Matthew B. Crawford's "Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work" (2009), which encouraged Americans to become more self-reliant – and in the process, less distant from the messy workings of their myriad possessions.

"What ordinary people once made, they buy," Mr. Crawford wrote, "[A]nd what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves replacing an entire system because some minute component has failed."

The Fixers' Collective offers a solution, of a sort: Best-case scenario, a visitor leaves Proteus with a repaired object. Worst-case scenario, the object remains broken, but the visitor has a whole lot of fun.

An air of exuberant optimism

Over the next hour, the following broken objects are dropped onto the Fixers' table: A power cord, an egg slicer (yes, there is such a thing), a PlayStation video game console, and a chunky wooden stool. Sometimes the owners of the objects stay to participate in the repairs, and sometimes – as in the case of the egg slicer – the owner herself does the bulk of the repairs.

A boisterous mood permeates the room, which is festooned with all manner of metal signage, and stacked high with rows of fix-it books. The air grows hot; Lai begins to sweat. Pittman opens the window.

In the center of the space, Sampson watches Holdner hammer at the blender. He has snapped a new plastic bit onto the motor casing, and he is exuberantly optimistic.

"You know," he tells Sampson. "I think this could work. It really could." Sampson eyes a photographer, who is working her way around the perimeter of the room.

"Oh!" she says. "My blender is going to be famous!"

"Let's try it out," Lai suggests.

"Plug her in," Holdner says.

Lai, who in another life sells children's books to major retailers such as Toys 'R' Us, bends down and plugs in the blender. It whirs to life. Sampson executes a quick little tap dance on the wooden floor. "Yesssssssssss!"

"Another happy customer," Holdner grins.

Pittman clears her throat. A new visitor has sidled into the room. In one outstretched hand he holds another broken blender.

"Hi," the visitor says. "I was told you might be able to help me fix this...."

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