Post 35: Don’t Shop. Repair Shop!

Starting with my early writing, I decided to avoid using brand names if possible. To me it seemed to cheapen fiction. “She put on her tightest Levis, got into her Kia, and drove to the nearest Olive Garden.” See what I mean? Brands are just too pop. Would Dickens or Twain ever write a sentence like that? And there was another reason: I didn’t want to give some horrible company free publicity. A reference in someone’s book or article would be more even more valuable to them, I thought, than a single individual’s four- or five-star review below some commercial posting.

Once in a while, I’d use nicknames. Home Despot. Gougem’s. (Recognize them?)

On the other hand, I love promoting a good cause or business or work of art. That’s partly what my Picks of the Week are about. I think I’ve mentioned, more than once, our neighborhood used building-supply outlet, the Restore, one arm of a local family-services nonprofit. In my early writing days, I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me I’d be promoting a TV show.

But that’s what I’m about to do here.

There are quality TV shows, and those of us who work really hard (who doesn’t, in this era of ever-new tasks trickling down from above?) deserve an entertaining escape now and then, whether informational or fictional. I like to think I know other ways to entertain myself, outside of the digital lightbox. But being able to dial up a quality show, whenever I want it—that’s a benefit of our era.  I take advantage of it and appreciate it.

So, in this post I’m gonna promote my favorite TV show. Why not? In a nice way, it’s aligned with the essence of this site. But not exactly in the way I thought it might be.

It’s a BBC show, set in the countryside of West Sussex, England. The opening sequence features a large, barn-like structure—its double doors big enough to admit a double-decker bus—with the thickest, finest-looking thatched roof I’ve ever seen. (I’ve been to the UK, but I wasn’t interested in such things back then.) The appealing traditional setting is, I’m afraid, rather ruined by the big sign on the outside, made up of little Hollywood light bulbs like the kind you’d see around the edge of a film star’s mirror, not to mention the way the leading leg of the “R” dips and extends across to underline the name—something an amateur designer would come up with first thing. (I’m getting used to it.) Essentially, people bring in stuff they’d like fixed. It’s always old stuff, sometimes as recent as jukeboxes or early space toys, but there are also items that go way back: one young Asian woman brought in pieces of an inherited Chinese statue about 2,000 years old. Some items have potential monetary value, but that’s never mentioned—nor is there a charge for the restorations.

The submissions always come with some serious emotions and memories, most of them having belonged to deceased family members. Often there are stories and dramatic histories. The object may have survived the Holocaust, or some other war, or it traveled the world by sea, or it was clutched tightly by a refugee who settled in England. There are familiar items like stringed instruments and teddy bears, but also unusual pieces like an antique bronze rose sprayer or an early garden elf. The workshop relies on a diversity of specialists: a clock expert, a ceramics mender, a leather rehabilitator, a stuffed animal rejuvenator, a woodworker, an electrician, a painting renovator, and other specialists that seem called in for specific, unusual jobs. I like that almost all of them are older people. How else do you get to be a truly experienced expert?

Sometimes in writing about new stuff sucking I find myself feeling a little sick, being so caught up in the subject of things. The feeling bothers me especially during times of prominent suffering in the news—pandemics and food insecurity, floods and earthquakes and fires, invasions and bombings, the deaths of children—complete the list with your own fears and concerns. Publishing cute pictures of my yard objects, personal art projects, proud before-and-after pictures of changes wrought by plants growing (not by me)—well, sometimes I feel as shallow as a celebrity-watch video or an influencer promotion.

But I guess it’s necessary, because this blog is meant to expose the futility of buying one’s way into happiness. Or even the hopelessness of saving the world with new technology. Overconsuming and greed can be linked to disasters on that list. People already know the connections—the messes that the sum total of human habits create. It’s just not pleasant—for anyone—to look at them. And an individual’s habit changes, like voting, seem ineffective.

For whatever reason, I can’t not see the connections. The overflowing trash I see in alleys and yards and Dumpsters reminds me of how easily and readily our earth is raped and tossed aside along with our stuff. Even when I’m happy about a good find.

Why wouldn’t I love The Repair Shop? It goes to the opposite extreme in attaching profound value to objects, with most of the owners who bring them in describing how the ancestor has, in effect, come to be present in the thing, how it has power to conjure memories and to bring the loved one back. In fact, at the unveiling of each refurbished possession, the owner will usually tear up, cover their face, or begin to cry outright. You might cry, too. If so, don’t be hard on yourself. There’s an obvious formula in use here, filming someone’s emotions to elicit the viewer’s tears. But I’m pretty sure the grief and loss—and this small rekindling of a loved one’s essence—are real. Yes, we’re focused on the featured objects throughout the episode, and we marvel at the expertise used in fixing them, as well as the satisfying visual—or functional–restoration of something sad and broken to a better-preserved version of its old self. But the lives that touched it are of highest importance in the narratives. There are always delightful old photos, preserved stories, and cherished relationships.

Both the team of experts and the hopeful guests are charming and articulate—obviously well vetted. Together they turn the concept of value on its head. A grandmother’s vase is perfectly put back together, all cracks expertly hidden, and, though it would be worth pennies in an online sale, the granddaughter starts to bawl when the cloth is lifted. A toy battleship, handmade by a woman’s departed father, is almost cracked through and isn’t “seaworthy,” but when it’s returned to her she runs to the pond with her brother (whose own handmade ship was never damaged) and they have a remote-controlled boat race on the water. Smiling broadly, she says, “I’m a little kid again!”

The premise is entirely the opposite of that American show about old objects, where the whole point is assigning value. (Not saying nationality is anything more than a coincidence, mind you.)

I appreciate the concept of sentimental value, but I’m thinking, can’t we even go beyond that? And see the value in everything we own? The energy and resources they embody? Try to fix them instead of throwing them out? Find someone who needs them instead of tossing them? (See Marge Pellegrino’s heroic success stories with this challenge, Post 31).

Here’s a curious thing: Property values seem to predict the volume of stuff I see in alleys. Richer neighborhoods have much cleaner alleys than lower income ones. Do wealthier types put more value on repairing stuff, gifting what they’re through with, or having blank space around their trash cans? Are they more strongly part of a society that, at least on the surface, holds up an agreed-upon orderliness of possessions? Do they just have more inherited stuff, worth too much to toss?

Any ideas what’s going on here?

It does take time and effort to locate the right person to accept and appreciate castoffs. Maybe we just don’t have the time—or gas money. And don’t get me started on disappearing repair shops! We may want to get something fixed, but it’s out of our hands. There’s no option but to buy the thing new.

And why? Because it’s how the purveyors of mass-produced merchandise get richer and more powerful. More powerful over us, the consumers. More powerful over the world’s real estate.

But ultimately, even they will be subject to the vastly superior powers of wind, sun. heat, water, and molten earth. I don’t know if that’s a comfort or not.

Postscript

As I was finishing up this piece, the little yard-sale space heater I wrote about way back in in Post 2 gave up the ghost. Seemed like maybe I should try to fix it!

I’m glad I bought this at a yard sale, where it was already on its way to being trash. However, heating with electricity is extremely inefficient. I’m not yet off the grid. I still have work to do before I can brag about my sustainable life.

I turned it over and heard a loose part rattling around. Maybe I could locate it and glue it back on.

But at first I hesitated to take it apart. There was an ominous warning label on the outside:

Seriously? Perhaps I could simply unplug it to avoid electric shock? Most fix-it types know enough to do that. “Do not open.” Excuse me, don’t I have the right to open a device I paid for and own? Or have you got toxic parts in there?

“No user-serviceable parts inside.” I bet that’s true—but shouldn’t that be an embarrassing thing to admit? Because there should be user-serviceable parts inside. The whole thing should be easy for the user to take apart and fix, preferably with simple-to-replace parts. Why should the user be forced to trash the environment with a cheap plastic piece of junk, then take the time to choose and buy another heater (which will also soon trash the planet) and, with that purchase, take another chunk out of a household income that was no cinch to earn? That’s about your—and your partners in crime—profits. You, Intertek, should be ashamed of yourself. Your “ClimateKeeper” heater will spend most of its life, its afterlife, polluting the Earth and wrecking the climate.

I took the heater apart, unscrewing everything that could be unscrewed. The loose part was still rattling; I still didn’t have access to it. I started breaking off chunks of plastic with a pair of pliers—which meant, of course, that I’d never be able to put it back together, and there was no hope now of fixing it. Well, maybe there were “art parts” or other bits, like the tiny screws, that I could file away for use on other things. Other broken stuff? Art?

The coil plate was beautiful, delicate and gleaming silver. Its back side, however, was partially blocked with solidifying clouds of dust. Surely a continuation of this kind of dust buildup would eventually disable the heater—perhaps it already had. Yet there had been no way to clean it. No way to even see, from the outside, that it was in there.

This, dear friends, is how manufacturers and marketers are abusing us as consumers. But oh, how I wish it was just that. Remarkably, these stupid little cheap throwaways are taking down the human race. The label leads me to believe it’s not done in ignorance. We are meant to buy and toss.

But thank you, Intertek, for giving me this little practical example of a repair problem, just as I was writing about such! I’m happy to mention you, a “multinational assurance, inspection, product testing and certification company” (Wikipedia), by name. You’re even headquartered in London, England, which nicely ties the end of this post to its beginning.

Who could have foreseen it.

6 thoughts on “Post 35: Don’t Shop. Repair Shop!

  1. Kay, a couple of thoughts on why wealthier neighborhoods seem to discard fewer items:

    1. Rich people buy better-made objects–more solidly constructed, more durable–that cost more and last longer.

    2. Rich people have more storage space, so can hang on to a lot of stuff until it’s time for the estate sale.

    Jonathan

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  2. Yes, I can see where both of those reasons would apply. They might also be able to afford expensive repairs–if a repair person is available. Thanks for helping solve the mystery!
    –Kay

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  3. I’ll have to check out REPAIR SHOP as I am a fan of other “fix it” shows like Restaurant Impossible and Bar Rescue. There also used to be a Restoration show out of Las Vegas that restored old Coke machines and such.
    Regarding electric Coffee Makers, cleaning with vinegar is lame and does not work. I took mine apart and reemed the calcification out of the metal water tube. FIXED! For now.

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  4. Repair Shop reminds me a lot of social media pages that give people a forum to share repair and upcycle projects. Like your blog –the sharing inspires.

    Jonathan’s comments about the quality of items wealthy people can afford and their ability to store are spot on.

    Wealthy folk also have help to keep their trash tidy and not overflowing in alleys. I had a friend Anna who had such employment. She was a housekeeper for some wealthy folk in Scarsdale, New York. The family, on a regular basis, would throw things in the trash like brand new King Tut teeshirts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a week after going to the show where they had acquired the shirts as souvenirs of their cultural outing–their remembrance. The whole psychology of that kind of buying to remember or to share an experience is intriguing. But, the strangest thing Anna found in the trash was foreign currency from a recent trip. Seriously. They threw out cash that would have taken a bit of effort to convert.

    I’m hoping Anna’s family is an outlier….

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    1. Great story! I heard about a woman who always threw her pennies in the trash. There’s so little copper in them that they aren’t worth much–to her, not worth handling.

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