Americans are rediscovering the fusty fix-it shops and unassuming secondhand stores on their local Main Streets.

Reuse is the subject of this story by Ben Arnoldy in the Christian Science Monitor. The economy is creating new business for small, local repair shops, as Americans seek to extend the life of the things they own. The article cites examples in the San Francisco Bay Area and in the Boston area, where people are frequenting repair shops to fix shoes, bicycles, and vacuums.

“We were a mend-and-make-do society, and we have completely changed. We don’t fix anything anymore. We use, throw away, and buy more,” says Bruce Buckelew, a former IBM engineer who has repaired more than 30,000 computers and put them into public schools, nonprofits, and low-income households in Oakland, Calif. “The worse the stock market gets and the bleaker the job market, the better for reuse, actually.”

Buckelew’s Oakland Technology Exchange West is not only restoring equipment that would otherwise be thrown away but they are upgrading it and returning it to use by people who couldn’t afford new computers. In general, most computers are designed to be upgraded, although not everyone is able to do it themselves. Many type of electronics are not designed to be easily fixed or upgraded.

“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,

Clearly, we need product designers and manufacturers to be thinking more about extending the lifecycle of a product rather than shortening it. Creating user-servicable products seems like the way to go, along with making sure to supply parts along with the information required to do the repairs.

A talk by Dmitry Orlov compares how the collapse of the Soviet economy affected its people and how the same might affect Americans, whom he views as ill-prepared.

In the United States, you often hear that something “is not worth fixing.” This is enough to make a Russian see red. I once heard of an elderly Russian who became irate when a hardware store in Boston wouldn’t sell him replacement bedsprings: “People are throwing away perfectly good mattresses, how am I supposed to fix them?”

Economic collapse tends to shut down both local production and imports, and so it is vitally important that anything you own wears out slowly, and that you can fix it yourself if it breaks.

Another aspect of reuse is that “used things” retain more value. Second hand stores, also covered in Arnoldy’s story, are seeing good sales, compared to the drop in sales at retail stores, some of which are even closing. Second hand stores are not only a source for used clothing; they’re buying clothing for resale and those sources are local. A friend of my daughter’s works as a buyer in a second-hand store in the Bay Area and she confirmed that business was up before and after the holidays. There’s more interest in selling clothes once you no longer need or want them. Like buying a new car and selling it as used, the actual value of the item is the difference between those two prices, not its sticker price. Increasingly, there are some people who prefer not to be seen in “new” clothing and prefer the lower prices at second-hand stores. So it’s not only practical, but in some cases fashionable.

Repair shops and second-hand stores are part of a new landscape that’s emerging. It’s one way we can become more resourceful.

Have you noticed repair shops and second-hand stores in your town or neighborhood?

6 thoughts on “Remake: Second Hand Stores and Repair Shops

  1. The answer to this is simple. Don’t buy from the big brands like Sony and Dell. They tend to have enough market control to afford designing custom parts, often requiring upgrades to go through their system. Many, many times I’ve heard of old Dell computers with failed power supplies, with owner finding out the only way they can get a new one is used and then at a high price on Ebay.

    Look carefully at computers and find out from techy friends if these machines are compatible with current replacement parts. The exception being portables, as almost none of those devices are upgradeable. Parts can usually only be shared between the same version of laptops. And, given the design flaws, it will usually be the same parts breaking on each, meaning it is very difficult to find a dead laptop with a the working part you need for your laptop.

  2. “Clearly, we need product designers and manufacturers to be thinking more about extending the lifecycle of a product rather than shortening it. Creating user-servicable products seems like the way to go, along with making sure to supply parts along with the information required to do the repairs.”

    Consumers want cheaper and smaller goods. An easy way to make goods cheaper is to use parts that will only last a little bit longer than the customer wants the goods to last. An easy way to make goods smaller is to use parts that cannot be serviced by the end user.

    This “engineered obsolescence” has functions and dysfunctions. Frequent turnover of possessions is seen sometimes as a function, and sometimes a dysfunction. When you “buy a new one”, you upgrade your technology to a more current level. When buying electronics, this change can imply a very large delta of performance, size, or attractiveness. This is because technology improves at an accelerating pace. The most prominent dysfunction is that people generate more trash and have less control over their possessions. If this doesn’t sound like a good trade-off to you, you probably won’t have an easy time finding a new phone.

  3. Story in the local newspaper (Memphis) a couple weeks ago, shoe-repair shops (cobblers) which were virtually extinct a few years ago are having more business than they can handle.

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

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