Skyway Repair Café Provides Community Space, Second Chance for Broken Items

by Max Wasserman

Barb Horton started fixing things because it was considered a “boy job,” and boy jobs paid better in 1975.

Horton was then studying at the University of Washington to be a teacher. To pay for her education, she maintained postage printing machines, but her career path changed when she was hired full-time by a company that produced the devices.

Decades later, the now retired Horton volunteers her expertise in a series of repair events sponsored by King County, the most recent of which took place at the Skyway Public Library Tuesday, July 17. That event, called Skyway Repair Café, drew people from across Skyway and beyond, many of whom left with their items in working order.

At each event, item owners are paired with volunteers with expertises ranging from sewing to mechanical repairs. Since the gatherings started two years ago, more than 8,000 pounds of items have been successfully repaired, according to data from King County’s Solid Waste Division.

But these events are about more than mending broken belongings. The repair pop-ups are a gathering place for fixers to congregate, share advice, and revive the memories once-broken items hold for their owners.

“You get to be a rock star for five minutes,” Horton said.

A volunteer and young girl chat as other sewers mend articles as part of the Skyway Repair Café, the latest stop in an ongoing repair series sponsored by King County.

Repair volunteers and item owners were crammed into a small meeting room, jostling past one another as they searched for the right tools or experts, and imbued the room with the feel of an open-air market. Among those seeking help with repair work was Mike Strickland, holding his broken car battery charger.

“I’ve done some pretty big projects,” Strickland, a retired electronic worker, said. “Yet I can’t fix this.”

Strickland needs the charger for the SUVs, pickup trucks, tractors, and lawn mowers he uses on the South Prairie property that has been in his family since 1881, the year his great grandfather immigrated from Sweden and found work in the mines of Washington.

Strickland recalled that when he was a child, he and his family would camp on the property and gaze up at the stars on clear nights. He said he still makes it down from his home in Bellevue to the family property about two days a week but is thinking about selling the land since he has no children of his own to inherit it.

When it was his turn, Strickland stood with hands on hips, watching Mark Holt’s capable hands dismantle his broken battery charger. Fortunately for Strickland, It didn’t take long for Holt, a retired flight control specialist with Boeing, to resurrect the charger.

Mike Strickland peers in as Mark Holt, right, and another fixer tinker with his broken car battery charger, the item Strickland brought to a repair event at the Skyway Public Library.

Outside the library, beneath a canopied fixing station, Paul Savino and his father—also named Paul Savino—applied putty to a rusting dishwasher tray.

The older Savino said a middle-aged man once brought a ceramic statue to a repair event. The figurine’s name was Whistling Willy, and it was his deceased mother’s favorite belonging. It sat with one leg crossed over the other and, when it worked, would swivel its head back-and-forth and whistle. Savino fixed it. The man cried, he said, and they hugged.

The younger Savino teaches woodworking at a high school in West Seattle. His father, now retired, developed an aptitude for invention while teaching high school chemistry. Fixing items—and sharing each other’s company—drew both to the repair event.

“We don’t get to fool around with one another enough, so it’s a load of fun to sit here and fix stuff with my son,” Savino said of the pair’s time at the repair event.

Paul Savino, left, works alongside his son—also named Paul Savino—at a repair event Tuesday, July 17 at the Skyway Public Library.

By the end of the event, almost 50 items had been repaired, a fraction of the roughly 2,000 that have been mended at repair events over the past two years. The county data does not list how much trash this has kept out of landfills.

“We’re showing people the value of buying durable products,” Program Manager with the King County Solid Waste Division Tom Watson said. “When people bring in their mom’s Kitchen Aid mixers, those things are built to withstand the nuclear holocaust, so it kind of makes an impression without saying anything.”

Horton said she believes the program reduces the expense of having to buy new equipment and gives people the confidence to repair their own belongings.

“It empowers people,” Horton said. “My job is to make people lose their fear.”

Jay Stafford was one such attendee. He watched Horton repair a broken fan he had brought to the event. The fan had been taking up space in his Ballard home for almost two years, but trying to fix it had always intimidated him.

Now, Stafford said some of those fears have since dissipated. In their place has grown a  confidence he gained as he watched Horton work, steadying a metal plate with a clamp, pooling a lifetime of experience to resurrect an old fan in the heat of the summer.

“I’m learning something, too, so it’s a win-win,” Stafford said.

Photographs by Max Wasserman.

Feature photograph: One of the many volunteers at the Skyway Repair Café, the latest stop in King County’s item repair event series, examines a broken reel-to-reel tape machine. At each event, people bring in clothing, electronics and furniture for volunteer fixers to repair.