by Kathryn Fentress
Kurt Prassé, a native of Austria, has lived on four continents and moved to Bellingham this year. He has a three-year-old son who lives with him half time and he is in the process of rebuilding a house in the Birchwood neighborhood.
Kathryn: You have lived in so many places. How did you come to live here in Bellingham?
Kurt: After a career in photography, I moved from Vienna to Berlin just as the Berlin Wall came down. Then I moved to New York, then to San Francisco and from there to New Zealand and then to Australia. I returned to San Francisco, learned about construction and bought, restored and sold a Victorian mansion in Oakland and then moved to New Mexico. There I remodeled several houses and sold them before moving here. San Francisco would be perfect for me to live except it is too expensive and too crowded. Bellingham has all the same attractions but also has snow covered mountains and islands that you can see. I can ride my bicycle to town and it is relatively affordable. I love the cold and I love to be where it is rainy and gray like where I grew up.
Kathryn: What exactly is the Repair Café?
Kurt: Each month, on the first Wednesday from 6 to 9 pm and on the first Sunday from 3 to 6 p.m., we operate a repair shop in the Foundry at 1515 N. Forest Street. Volunteers repair clothing, jewelry, bicycles, household items, small appliances, toys, small furniture, electronics, etc. for free. Anyone is welcome to bring things that need repairing. Donations are appreciated but not required.
Kathryn: Where did the idea for the Café come from?
Kurt: I have always liked to repair things and realized early on that I have some mechanical ability. Even as a child, I took my bicycle apart, and my father would include me when he repaired things. I have friends who also enjoy fixing things, and I know that there are a lot of retired folks who have been in mechanical professions. Noticing that people throw away so much stuff, I had the idea for some kind of repair project. I researched the Internet and found that there are repair cafés in Germany. In Europe, people are more aligned with repairing things.
Kathryn: When and how did you launch the Café?
Kurt: It took a few months of preparation as I am parenting and working on several other projects. After the initial research, I put an ad on Craigslist to recruit volunteers. I also posted some flyers. I researched venues and then the Foundry contacted me. The Foundry is more about making and building things, but our focus on repairing things fits well. I had had the idea for a long time, but I recently went through a difficult divorce from a marriage where my creativity was unwelcome. I needed something immediate to focus on. So the Repair Café was therapeutic for me in that it is creative and serves others. I think many people going through a hard transition would benefit by starting a project that would help others. It may seem counterintuitive but putting out energy to others brings energy back to oneself.
We had our first Café in September. At this point, we have four tech volunteers who come consistently. We have another three or four who come sometimes. We only have one non-tech volunteer, and she is very valuable and very committed. More publicity should bring more volunteers and more people with repair projects. Even though people say that most things are not repairable, we are repairing about 64 percent of the things brought in. The trend is to use more electronic parts in gadgets, but there are still the mechanical parts that break.
Kathryn: Please explain why you think repairing things is so important.
Kurt: For me there is gratification is repairing things and I feel good helping others. I also like helping others to save money and reduce consumerism. Then there are the environmental aspects such as reducing landfill. The stupidity of how things are done is hard to understand. We live on a finite planet with finite resources but we act as if the resources are unlimited. In the future, we will have to reuse and recycle everything. The greed of the corporate world is only interested in making as much money as they can while the resources last. Resource preservation is very important and a wave of the future. I recently saw a study that indicated that for one can of garbage, it takes approximately seven more in the production process to replace what was in that one can. So for every item we repair, we are reducing the landfill by seven times.
We also have fun at the Café! The volunteers who come to help are enjoying themselves. The people who bring things are happy to have them fixed. The whole atmosphere is very welcoming. In fact, to some, the social aspect is very important. When people get together to do something for the environment, consciousness is being raised. Recognizing the needs of single parents, the Repair Café is child-friendly offering a s separate room with toys for children while parents are awaiting their turn, perhaps enjoying a complimentary cup of tea or coffee and a pastry. We hope eventually, especially if we get some funding, to add an educational component to the project. Then we could teach adults and kids the basics of repairing things. The process can be applied to other situations in life.
Kathryn: How do you support yourself personally?
Kurt: I love being creative and always have several projects going. I am planning to create a small art community at my home by sharing the house with others and having a garden and a few animals. I take parenting very seriously; my time with my son is a high priority. Aside from some of my projects hopefully generating income, I am planning to teach some workshops for pro photographers, as photography is my first profession. I have a vast amount of knowledge about photography and want to pass it on, be helpful to others, especially event photographers. I really enjoy it. In the past, I have taught groups of photographers, testing equipment and working with different films and techniques. I wrote a computer workflow program years ago to process large numbers of photos.
Kathryn: The Repair Café is a great project with many positive aspects to it. Anything else you would like our readers to know?
Kurt: For me Bellingham is a good place with a large number of progressive, forward-thinking people and a lot of entrepreneurship here. I hope the Repair Café will continue to expand in the number of people who use the service. I also hope we will continue to draw volunteers who enjoy helping others and sharing their skills. So far, I have covered all the expenses (rent, insurance, tools, parts, legal, online, etc.) on my own but we will seek outside funding. We also have a web page http://bellinghamrepaircafe.net
We invite folks to come on the first Wednesday evening and the first Sunday afternoon of each month to bring your items for repair or to just visit.
Kathryn: Thank you, Kurt for your perspectives, your ingenuity, and for creating this wonderful project. Welcome to Bellingham.