Buying something new can be a quick and effortless path to reinvention. It can also be a worthwhile challenge to have to hold tight to what we already own, and find other ways to evolve. Making new things also requires natural resources that we now know don’t exist in an endless supply.
Recycling and reusing are important, but I wonder what it would mean if we thought a little harder before we bought in the first place. What if more things were built to last, and if the people who fixed things were in higher demand? So this month, when three household items stopped working, I decided not to buy new ones. Instead, I would fix them myself or pay someone else to do it for me.
The owner of Frank’s Shoe Repair in Nob Hill — who is actually named Daniel — laughs a little when I hand him the boots I’ve been meaning to get fixed for months. I’ve worn the heels down to a slick surface, and walking has become pretty dangerous in the rain. Daniel says he’s working on the same pair right now.
Same color or brand, I ask? “The exact same boots with the exact same problem,” he says and I have an urge to meet my shoe Doppelganger. After losing her balance on a sidewalk or staircase, did she also give herself permission to buy a new pair, only to take a hard look at the two good buckles and intact leather and think better of it?
Daniel rings me up for $34.00 and tells me I can pick the shoes up in five days. Behind him several employees stand in a cloudy haze of polish holding various shoes in their hands. The place is crowded in a refreshingly functional way.
Has Frank’s been busy since the recession started, I ask Daniel. Yes, he tells me, and he’s not surprised. After all, he says, “Even a pair of boots made in China can cost you $150.” I don’t mention the fact that I bought mine for $70, and with the time spent dropping them off and picking them back up, I’ll be doing only slightly better than if I had spent 20 minutes combing the basement racks at DSW. Of course, like I mentioned early, this experiment has more to do with my footprint than it does with my shoe size.
After a year of use, the purse I carry with me everywhere stopped staying closed. When I found myself considering buying a near replica online, I was struck by two questions: 1) Does my shoe doppelganger also have an understated but contemporary brown shoulder bag? and 2) if I bought a new magnetic snap and sewed it to a patch of thick fabric where it tore free from overuse, could I put off making the purchase for another year?
I headed to Britex Fabrics, a Mecca for home sewers, fabric lovers, designers and anyone interested in losing hours of their lives staring at stack upon stack of toiles, calicos and Japanese Indigos. The third floor of Britex is somewhere between a sewer’s candy-store and an Andreas Gursky photo. I passed the 40,000 buttons (real number), appliqués, ribbons and flowers, trims and tassels, rhinestones, and knitting supplies and headed to the accessories.
When I can’t find the right kind of snap, a woman behind the counter pulls out one of many oblong white boxes and bingo! I’m in business for $4.95. The actual cutting, sewing and strategizing took me almost two hours because I’m not the most skilled seamstress, but my purse closes now, and that means I’m not longer inadvertently showing everyone — the people on the bus, in line for the ladies room — all my worldly possessions. Hallelujah.
A wall of giant flat screen televisions lines the tiny storefront that acts as the face of A-Plus Electronics in Cow Hollow, so I felt a little absurd bringing them my clock radio/iPod doc to repair. The light behind the clock had recently gone out and keeping a flashlight by the bed in order to see the time on dark winter mornings didn’t feel like a long-term plan.
In a thick Russian accent, Michael, the owner, told me he would check with his repair guy and call me back in a few days. It wasn’t easy to find someone who would fix a clock radio, and this fact caused me to me consider all the things in my house I probably couldn’t get fixed if I wanted to. Cars, yes. Vacuums, stereos, cameras, shoes, and some high-end clothes are seen as “worth” fixing. But the vast majority of household items now cost more to fix in this country than they do to buy again.
There are times when it makes sense to upgrade; especially if the new version is more energy efficient, faster, or easier to use. But how often are we fooled into thinking the decision is simpler than it seems? I paid Michael $50, exactly half of what the gadget had cost me new, and when I think about what it takes to run a small business in San Francisco, the cost makes perfect sense.
After more than a week of waking to a cell phone alarm, I finally heard from Michael; my clock radio had been fixed. When I made my way to the edge of Cow Hollow, where A-Plus sits beside two small hair and nail salons, it was only five minutes ‘til closing time. Nevertheless, Michael was game to discuss the disappearing art of fixing things.
“We used to expect a television to last 25 years,” he said, when I asked about the challenges of his business. “Now, technology changes so fast – and prices end up dropping, so it’s hardly ever worth fixing things for very long. A lot of people waver between fixing and buying.” Michael’s employees are constantly updating their knowledge of electronics to keep up with technology. He manages to stay in business, he says, simply because there are so few companies like his left in the San Francisco.
After I leave A-Plus, I stop in to retrieve my boots at Frank’s Shoe Repair. When I hand him my red ticket, Daniel spends a good five minutes searching the shelves of reused paper grocery bags filled with good-as-new shoes before he finds mine.
Do any cobblers still work on shoes by hand, I ask, looking at the big green machine where shoes appear to be re-soled, rebuilt and polished all in one place; it takes up half the workshop area. “Not anymore,” Daniel says. The 300 to 400 shoes (mostly women’s) and over 100 bags and purses he fixes every week just wouldn’t get done by hand – even in a 70-hour work week. We chat about the business for a while – something I wouldn’t think to do with a clerk in a shoe store, where the shoes I take home are usually continents removed from the people who make them.
My boots now have a rebuilt heel and a new textured, slip-proof sole that was attached using the green machine at Frank’s, a machine I can picture every time I look down at them. So I have to wonder: will this act of putting a face on the process, of re-thinking the lifespan of an object she wears around almost daily, keep my Doppelganger with the tan boots going back there too?
I recommend getting to know the fixers in your neighborhood. When you’re up to trying it yourself, finding the right supplies is key. Britex is top-notch and so is Roberts Hardware – the staff is always full inspiration and tips. Frank’s Shoe Repair is easy to find at 1619 Polk Street (between Clay St & Sacramento St). A-Plus Electronics is a few blocks away at 2111 Van Ness Ave. If you plan it just right, you can swing by both places in one trip!