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.

By , Correspondent

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    Nancy Sampson (c.), a client of The Fixers’ Collective in Brooklyn, N.Y., watches Tammy Pittman (l.) and Joe Holdner work to repair a broken wooden stool .
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The first object is a blender. As blenders go, this one is tarnished, but not particularly old, and for a few long and silent and tense moments, Vincent Lai rolls the thing around in his hands, shaking the base, tugging meditatively on the power cord, and finally squinting down into the internal drive, like a veteran marksman sizing up a target.

"It was the ice," says Nancy Sampson, a bright-eyed local artist and the bereaved owner of the broken blender.

"The ice?" Mr. Lai raises one eyebrow. He is wearing high-waisted stone-washed jeans and a dark work shirt. As he talks, he sifts through the top drawer of an open toolbox.

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"Yeah, I put some ice in there, and screeeeeeeeech!" – Ms. Sampson claps her hands together, and Lai jumps – "the thing just broke."

"I think what we really need is a needle nose," says Joe Holdner. Mr. Holdner, who is shorter than Lai and seems more anxious, would clearly prefer to cut the small talk, crack open the blender, and get to work.

"No," Lai says. "We need a wrench; 3/8th-inch, probably."

"How about 5/16th-inch?"

"I have that precision stuff in the car."

"It seems like a well-made blender ...," Holdner laments.

"My poor blender," Sampson says, and bows her head.

"Don't worry," says Holdner, who wears his graying hair pulled back tight in a ponytail. "Sometimes there's a magic aura in here, where things just get fixed."

"Sometimes not," Lai says.

"Shhhhh," Holdner says.

They both burst out laughing.

Repairing for the joy of it

Neither Holdner nor Lai, it should be said, is a professional mechanic. Neither man has ever worked an assembly line, nor served out an apprenticeship in some fume-clogged Brooklyn garage. Instead, they are what might best be termed handymen hobbyists: They fix things at no charge, for the sheer joy of it. Every week for the past year or so, Lai and Holdner, along with a slew of other handy types, have flooded the back room of an old box factory in an industrial section of Brooklyn, with the express purpose of helping New Yorkers repair their broken stuff.

The members of the Fixers' Collective, as the organization is known, have repaired just about every conceivable household object under the sun, from chairs and lamps to computers and gaming consoles. The unstated motto of the collective is a simple one: With enough elbow grease or know-how, anything can be fixed. Anything can be saved from the trash heap. And anyone – even admittedly unhandy types – can be taught to wield a wrench.

On Thursday nights from 7 to 9, the collective, which is housed on the premises of Proteus Gowanus, a funky and popular local event space, invites residents to bring by their battered and bruised stuff. Reservations are not required; the only fee is a suggested $5 or $10 donation, which is used to pay the rent and keep the collective flush with the necessary tools. Traffic is typically lively, with dozens of visitors flitting in and out of the Fixers' room, clutching their ailing objects.

"Master Fixers" like Lai and Holdner are on hand to help advise newcomers, and to develop a repair strategy, but laymen and -women are often prodded to take matters into their own hands – to batter, slam, pry, wrench, tap, snap, click, twist, screw.

For David Mahfouda, the young and bearded cofounder of the Fixers' Collective, helping people develop more intimate relationships with their stuff is of paramount importance. "In our culture, when something is broken, our recourse is always to buy, buy, buy," Mr. Mahfouda says. "It's lovely to be able to repair something yourself, to have that dialogue with your environment. When we started the group, our big hope was that people would take the ideas and processes that they learned here – that agency and authority – and use it in other parts of their lives. And they have."

At first, the goal was deconstruction

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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