Silicon Valley entrepreneur starts 'Repair Cafe'

From headsets to vacuums, volunteers will fix household items to reduce landfill waste

A new Palo Alto nonprofit organization that aims to help non-tinkerers solve the minor mysteries of repairing broken small appliances and household items will open its doors on Sunday, Oct. 14.

Dubbed the Repair Cafe, volunteers armed with hand tools will help people learn to repair frayed electrical cords, non-popping toasters and even luggage at the Palo Alto Museum of American Heritage.

Peter Skinner, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and longtime chief financial officer, founded the first such organization in the U.S. after reading about repair cafes in the Netherlands, he said. The small European nation has 30 community-based fix-it cafes.

Instead of tossing the broken devices into the Dumpster, people will save money and do something good for the environment while learning a few handyperson skills, he said.

Among the items volunteers can help fix are small household appliances, furniture, luggage, some electronics, including personal computers, toys, bicycles and clothing. Palo Alto ACE Hardware will have staff on hand, and Green Citizen recycling company and the city's Zero Waste program will have booths. There will be information about where to recycle things that can't be repaired, he said.

"The idea appealed to me because of my own dissatisfaction with the prevalence of our hyper-consumer culture where we buy and we toss," he said. Every time he does that personally, he finds it discomforting, he said.

After reading a New York Times article in May, Skinner contacted the Netherlands group to see about using their name and model. They were excited about the idea, he said.

With his background as a chief financial officer for Silicon Valley companies, including formerly at Accept Software Corporation, Skinner knew he could fill the role of group organizer. He set about putting together the volunteers and their skills and finding a location for the inaugural event with the help and advice of two friends, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Bob Wenzlau and John Eaton.

Skinner admits he is not a fix-it expert.

"I have moderate fix-it skills, not refined fix-it skills. I'm the perfect candidate" for the Repair Cafe, he said. He plans to bring an electric kettle with a lid that won't close and a corroded multimeter electronic-testing device that stopped functioning.

Skinner said he hopes to assuage people's fear of those things that seem imposing -- and build in people a sense of the value of repairing.

"We are all so acclimated to throwing things away," he said.

That trend has nearly doubled in almost 50 years, he said. In 1960, each person in the U.S. generated 2.68 pounds of waste per day. By 2008, the average was 4.5 pounds per day. About 54 percent ended up in the landfill, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Out of 2.25 million pounds of electronics that were retired in 2007, 82 percent were discarded in landfills nationwide, according to the EPA.

The deleterious effects are more than mountains of trash. Landfills are usually located near bodies of water, and plastics can leach chemicals and gases even before they disintegrate, the EPA states. A Zero Waste America study found that 83 percent of landfills surveyed in 2008 had leaks in their protective linings.

Incinerators that process landfill materials are also a major source of 210 different dioxin compounds, heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium, nitrous oxide, hydrogen chloride, sulfuric acid, fluorides and particulate matter small enough to lodge in lungs, according to the EPA. Waste incinerators create more carbon dioxide than coal, oil or natural-gas power plants, the EPA notes.

Skinner said he is interested in grassroots, community-based solutions to problems.

"We have so little appetite for sweeping policy changes," he said.

Eaton, a mechanical engineer by training, said he will volunteer at the event.

"I've always been a tinkerer and repairer since forever -- ever since I was a kid and started pulling lawnmower engines apart," he said.

That first introduction to things mechanical probably led to his career choice, he added. It has also made him popular with his friends and neighbors.

"My friends will call and say, 'John, come over for a glass of wine -- and by the way, the dishwasher isn't draining right,'" he said.

Eaton said headphones and earbuds are some of the most challenging items to fix. Tiny coaxial wires, which have a braid of fine wires within them, have to be connected with a soldering iron while looking through a microscope.

His stereoscope -- a microscope with two eyepieces -- is one of his most-used tools.

"It's not something people have a lot. But it's good when things are broken and you can't determine why they are broken," he said.

In his arsenal are items one wouldn't have found in Dad's toolbox. New tools are used for new technologies: miniature wire strippers, good tweezers and pry tools made out of plastic so they won't gouge consoles, he said.

Skinner said Repair Cafe will start out quarterly, and hopefully it will expand as community interest grows. So far, he's spreading the news through his neighborhood email list and has posted notices at ACE Hardware and the Museum of American Heritage.

"The response I got has been amazing," he said.

People have supplied a list of items needing repair, from DustBusters to luggage. One woman wanted to bring a moped.

That brought up a point he wanted to emphasize. The Repair Cafe is for small appliances and items only -- things that won't take too much time to fix.

"No cars, no washing machines, no dishwashers. If it takes a truck to move it, it's probably not a good thing to bring," he said.

Repair Cafe will take place Sunday, Oct. 14, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Palo Alto Museum of American Heritage, 351 Homer Ave., Palo Alto.

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by bru
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 12, 2012 at 12:59 am

bru is a registered user.

What a great idea!

Like this comment
Posted by Janet
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 12, 2012 at 10:15 am

Talk about deju vu all over again! In the 60s there was a place on Park Ave in Palo Alto, near where Frys now is, where you could take your recycling and things you didn't need but others might. There was also a place where you could share tools to fix your car or anything else. I think Stanford had a similar informal organization at that time.

Like this comment
Posted by Sherry
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 12, 2012 at 10:16 am

Brilliant! thank you.

Like this comment
Posted by MPCyclist
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 12, 2012 at 10:33 am

Great idea. A lot of things get tossed because it's impossible to find a replacement for that cheap, specialized $0.29 thingamajig that broke. If volunteers can develop a resource list or a list of places where one could go to make a replacement part, that would also be very helpful. I'll definitely check it out and possibly volunteer.

Like this comment
Posted by Nan
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 12, 2012 at 10:45 am

Peter - such a good idea! Thanks for taking the initiative.

Like this comment
Posted by Paula Sandas
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 12, 2012 at 11:42 am

Good on ya, Peter Skinner! Just say "yes" to the Repair Cafe!

Like this comment
Posted by Lisa van dusen
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 12, 2012 at 12:07 pm

I have my "Ready to Repair" pile at the ready for Sunday!

Like this comment
Posted by KP
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 12, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Love it! I have a new flat screen TV with a broken antenna plug - just don't know how to fix it...YET!

Like this comment
Posted by Penny
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 12, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Great idea!

Like this comment
Posted by CC
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 12, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Is this only for Palo Alto residents?

Like this comment
Posted by Yona
a resident of Meadow Park
on Oct 12, 2012 at 7:47 pm

How frequently will this take place. It's great, and I'd like to participate, but can't on Oct. 14.

Like this comment
Posted by Marvelous Marv
a resident of another community
on Oct 13, 2012 at 9:43 am

Re: Repair Cafe: how does a very good fix-it guy volunteer?

This write-up doesn't say.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 13, 2012 at 9:55 pm

We wil likely hold another Repair Cafe in January. The event is not restricted to Palo Alto residents.

Like this comment
Posted by Jan H.
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 16, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Any chance these events will one day be held monthly, or even bi-monthly?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

Chick-fil-A quietly starts delivering out of DoorDash kitchen in Redwood City
By Elena Kadvany | 60 comments | 9,454 views

Palo Altans and their Virtue Signaling
By Sherry Listgarten | 24 comments | 2,705 views

Differentiating Grief from Clinical Depression
By Chandrama Anderson | 2 comments | 2,439 views

Halloween with grandma
By Cheryl Bac | 1 comment | 689 views

A Voter Warning from a Wise Friend
By Diana Diamond | 14 comments | 667 views