Stuff therapy: Detox from consumerism by fixing the things you already own

Michael Banta and Sandra Goldmark of Pop-up Repair in front of their Inwood repair location
CC BY 3.0 Pop-up Repair

On the day that Sandra Goldmark and Michael Banta started Pop-up Repair, Sandra nervously gathered an assortment of odds-and-ends from her New York City apartment—a broken necklace, a battered spoon, clothes that needed sewing. Just in case, she told herself. Just in case their new employees needed something to do. Just in case no one brought anything to be repaired.

Sandra’s emergency items never left the bag they came in.

The first day the little Inwood repair shop opened, a line of customers stretched out of the door. Some people brought in bags of things: Old costume jewelry, shattered iPads, yellowing kitchen appliances, toys loved past their life expectancies. And the small team had their hands full until the day Pop-up Repair—a one-month repair experience—said goodbye to Inwood.

Ready, Set, Repair

Pop-up Repair—named because shops “pop up” in empty storefronts for short periods of time—launched in 2013. Its founders, Sandra and Michael, are theater professionals who work behind the curtains in stage production. Stagework breeds a certain talent for fixing unconventional problems on the fly—because, in theater, if something can go wrong, it will go wrong.

“Between the two of us, we have built, fixed, and renovated a whole lot of scenery, props, costumes, and all kinds of materials,” Sandra told me. “That’s just what we do. It’s part of the job.”

And the married couple believe that repair shouldn’t have professional borders. When something broke at home, Sandra and Michael set it aside to be repaired. It’s just that between kids and busy schedules, they never really found the time to do it.

Sandra and Michael suspected they weren’t the only ones with the same problem. It’s just not easy to get things fixed anymore. About 20 years ago, the mom-and-pop repair shops that used to be a staple of every community started to disappear—shunted out of business by an onslaught of goods designed to be cheap and disposable. And as repair shops disappeared, so did the possibility of repair for people without the skill or time to fix things on their own.

“I figured it bothered people,” Sandra said.

At least, it bothered Sandra. She and Michael thought about opening up a repair shop for two years, until Sandra—at home on maternity leave with their second child—decided they’d spent enough time thinking. It was time to do it: and so, Pop-up Repair was born.

During Pop-up Repair’s four-week residency at Inwood, the team fixed and returned almost 500 items—from sculptures to remote control cars. Each object was unique. Every single thing presented to the repair team had its own story.

“We call it Stuff Therapy,” Sandra says with a smile. “People come into the store, put their things down on the table, and they say, ‘Let me tell you about my lamp. Let me tell you about this chair.’ The history of the object and the story behind the object is really important.”

That relationship—built from years of use and love—is important because it makes our things meaningful. Human stories get mapped onto our stuff, telling us where we’ve been and, sometimes, where we’re going: That old armchair that’s been in the family for generations; the rocking horse with the broken handle that you’d like to pass onto to a grandchild.

Pop-up Repair/CC BY 3.0

Under the right conditions, our things become more than just things. We give them soul; we give them history. And repair becomes part of the object’s legacy.

“When we take an object and repair it, we take a little bit of our story, our lives, our talents and we kind of give it to the object. And then you take it home with you,” Sandra explains.

The Stuff Movement

For Sandra and Michael, repair isn’t just an action. It’s part of a worldview—one that measures the value of an object by more than just the sticker price. Everything that is manufactured is held together by something irreplaceable: energy, human labor, raw materials. And we can’t keep making ephemeral objects out of irreplaceable materials. It’s just not sustainable.

“The materials are extracted from the earth and manufactured and sold to us, and we bring them into our home,” Sandra explains. “Then they go back into the earth as landfill. And it matters what those things are.”

It’s part of what Sandra and Michael call the “Stuff Movement”—their way of describing a growing awareness of what goes into manufacturing the stuff we own. It’s rooted in an understanding that quantity is a sorry substitute for quality, and a consciousness that we’ve let ourselves be duped into a relentless cycle of buying and throwing away. The Stuff Movement is based on rethinking the relationship we have with all the “stuff” that populates our lives. And appreciating it for its very material substance—it’s stuffy-ness.

Sandra and Michael are resonating on a theme that has seen a huge resurgence around the world in the past few years: in the re-emergence of the DIY ethic, in growth of the Maker Movement, and in birth of the Fixer Movement—of which my company, iFixit, is a part.

“I think people are ready to rethink their relationship with stuff,” Sandra said. “I think… I hope that if we give people alternatives to buying cheap and discarding, that they are ready to take those alternatives.”

Repair: Coming to a Neighborhood Near You

Sandra and Mark just opened another Pop-up Repair shop in Brooklyn, which will run through the end of March. Then the repair team hits the road, tools in hand—first to Farmers’ Markets in the NYC area, and then on to Baltimore, Washington DC, and Philadelphia.

Even though Pop-up Repair stores stay for only a few weeks, each shop leaves something invaluable after it moves on. It leaves behind a reminder that there’s a better alternative to the endless cycle of buying, using, and tossing away. And that’s an idea worth spreading.

Sandra and Michael just launched a program to help others start their own Pop-up Repair shops. Because there are holes in our neighborhoods where those small repair shops used to be. It’s time to start filling them up again.

So, look around your home and ask yourself, “What needs fixing?”

Tags: Consumerism | Repair

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