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  • Livin’ on repair: The workshops, garages and cafes of Berlin’s thriving DIY scene

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Livin’ on repair: The workshops, garages and cafes of Berlin’s thriving DIY scene

When things break, our first thought is to buy a replacement. But what if it could be cheap (and easy) to fix them yourself? We explore Berlin's repair scene, where you can consult experts on how to fix the items you love.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Twenty-two-year-old Adrian* was thrilled about snagging a high-end secondhand Teufel CD player for cheap online. But the device soon started making a jarring sound, and then the CD tray stopped opening. Adrian could have chucked the CD player for a new one or had it repaired at the Teufel service centre – which could have set him back €100, as it was out of warranty. Instead, Adrian decided to take matters into his own hands. 

“I have been working at NochMall and seeing people fixing their electronics at the repair café. When my CD player stopped working, I decided to fix it myself with the help of experts here,” says Adrian, who said it was his first time doing something like this.

NochMall (an excellent wordplay on the German term ‘nochmal’, meaning ‘again’, and the English word ‘mall’) is a secondhand department store associated with the Berliner Stadtreinigung (BSR), Berlin’s waste collection and treatment company. Here, thrifty shoppers can find used furniture, electronics, clothes, sports gear, books and decor for a fraction of the usual cost. NochMall also has a space dedicated to upcycling workshops and a repair café, where Adrian was at work on his CD tray.

Photo: Kilian Seiler / Unsplash

The term ‘repair café’ is a bit of a misnomer; it can refer to any meeting space dedicated to repairing nearly anything that needs a second breath of life – a garage, a workshop, a parking lot, a bar – though many of them, including NochMall’s, do have small cafés attached. They’re staffed on a volunteer basis by repair-savvy experts, who can help people with whatever mending they have in mind.

In Adrian’s case, that was Nico*, an expert with Repair and Friends, the initiative that organises the free repair café at NochMall through the nonprofit organisation Anstiftung, which promotes do-it-yourself spaces. “Together, we tried to figure out what the issue was,” Adrian says of his initial consultation. “We found the problem inside the CD tray. The elasticity of the rubber segment that ejects and retracts the CD tray was damaged. So I got a new part for €4 online.”

An estimated 60-80% of the products brought into repair cafés are successfully fixed.

Now, as Adrian tinkers with his device, NochMall fills up with other repairers, with everything from a coffee machine to a vacuum cleaner to a hair dryer in tow. Everyone must fill out a Haftungsbegrenzung (limitation of liability) form explaining the issue with their device and freeing the experts from any responsibility if something can’t be fixed. Another expert, Norbert, peers through a magnifying glass lamp as he solders a tiny wire inside the coffee machine’s circuitry. He explains the issue to the owner as he works on it. Norbert celebrates every device he fixes by sounding a vintage horn hanging off a board next to his station. According to Tom Hansing, a research associate at Anstiftung, an estimated 60-80% of the products brought into repair cafés are successfully fixed.

Photo: ThisisEngineering / Unsplash

The NochMall repair café is just one of the over 1,200 such non-commercial initiatives across Germany, dozens of which can be found in Berlin. While the concept already existed, the first official ‘repair café’ was organised by Martine Postma in Amsterdam in 2009. She later founded the Repair Café International Foundation, which operates internationally and “aims to maintain and spread repair expertise and to promote social cohesion by bringing together neighbours from all walks of life”. At these cafés, there’s a strong focus on learning to fix things yourself irrespective of your technical knowledge, rather than outsourcing the mend.

According to Hansing, Germany always had a culture of doing informal repairs and open workshops, but this DIY culture really took off after the Repair Café International Foundation gave it a structure. “It was a franchise model, and we collaborated with them until 2014, after which we split up and founded Anstiftung. There is a lot of creativity in this movement, and we did not want to be bogged down by restrictions such as using a specific logo and following strict guidelines,” says Hansing, noting that their initiative has a more open-source-based approach.

There’s a strong focus on learning to fix things yourself

Even before the boom, local fix-it fanatics were on the scene; Nico has been involved with repairing culture for 18 years now. “Back then, ‘repair café’ was not even a term. We just had neighbourhoods where people had the tools, and we fixed things ourselves,” he says. This community aspect plays a huge role in repair café culture; as these aren’t commercial operations, the atmosphere tends to be collegial and friendly. “Repair cafés allow people to meet experts, learn how to fix things on their own, and this eventually creates a resilient neighbourhood,” Hansing adds.

In March 2023, the European Union passed the Right to Repair law, which aims to reduce e-waste and ensure new electronic products and appliances are repairable even after the stated warranty period. In April this year, the Berlin Senate approved a budget of €1.25 million for a ‘Bonus-Programm’ for 2024-25. This initiative, already present in Saxony and Thuringia, will start later this year and entitles private individuals to a yearly grant of up to €200 to repair their electronic items. But in Berlin, repair culture hardly stops at electronics.

Fixing Fahrräder

A bicycle may seem merely like a mode of transport, but in City of Exiles: Berlin from the Outside in, author Stuart Braun notes how some bicycle shops in the early 1990s would repair discarded bikes and distribute them to the citizens so that they had freedom of movement, as a protest against capitalistic public transport. This sentiment remains alive in the contagious passion with which experts volunteer their time at Berlin’s bike repair shops.

Photo: Bohdan Kadun / Unsplash

On Monday and Tuesday evenings year-round, a large parking lot at Am Weidendamm 3, a short walk from the Friedrichstraße station, transforms into the HubSchrauber Fahrrad Selbsthilfe Werkstatt. Volunteers help people – many of them students from nearby Humboldt University – fix bicycle issues big and small. Ulli Brand has been one of the experts involved in this initiative for a few years now.

By day, he works at a local kindergarten, but on Monday evenings, he’s at the HubSchrauber workshop. “Many people who come here know how to fix their bikes, but we are always here to help when you can’t figure out what to do. I tell people to observe closely and learn by observing,” Brand says. “It’s fun to help people be mobile in their own way – some people cannot spend a lot of money, some just want to learn. We want to give them the best working bikes.”

On warm evenings, most people prefer to repair their bikes outdoors, but HubSchrauber also has a workshop room in the corner of the lot, packed with everything from spare parts to tools to instruction manuals. Three bike repair stands occupy most of the floor space. The walls are covered with hanging hex wrenches, socket wrenches, screwdrivers, slotted screws, puncture repair kits and spare gears, which people are free to use if they’re familiar with them.

The atmosphere is relaxed, and the experts only give instructions when necessary.

On the ground, hidden under the tables, are plastic crates containing spare parts – seats, bells, front and back lights and more – which are sometimes sold for a fraction of the cost they would be at a bike shop. On one April night, a few people are huddled around a bike’s gears, crowded like scientists observing some experiment. Brand’s colleague brings out the spare gears, but it’s the bike owner who gets on his knees to strap them on. The atmosphere is relaxed, and the experts only give instructions when necessary.

Cyclist Igor M hasn’t felt the need to visit a commercial bike repair shop since discovering HubSchrauber years ago. “I’ve come to fix the brakes on my bike today,” he says. “It’s a mix of assisted repair and repairing myself. I find these guys very helpful. If you go to a bike shop, you don’t get to see how they repair your bike, so you don’t learn anything. I have learned how to fix my bike by coming here.”

This self-repair sentiment is also on display from Allgemeiner Deutscher Fahrrad-Club (ADFC), who host another workshop off Park am Gleisdreieck open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The ADFC also offers paid workshops for beginner mechanics, advanced learners and those who want to learn to repair specific types of bikes, such as mountain bikes, but their self-repair cafés, which are in limited locations, don’t charge.

“It’s mostly donation-based. We request people to donate some money, as we still have to pay the high rent of [our] office space. Normally, donations cover a fourth of the cost of the rent,” said volunteer expert Bernd Schafsteller, who has been helping fix bikes every Wednesday night for years.

Photo: Anton Savinov / Unsplash

On a typical evening, Bernd sees about 10 people come in. The number grows as summer or long weekends approach. Since the pandemic, the numbers of people coming for repairs have picked up, Bernd says. The rise of shared bikes like nextbike or Lime, where users don’t need to bother with repairs, and subscription services such as Swapfiets, which offer free repair or replacement as part of the plan, haven’t made a dent in the number of people coming in with their own wheels, the majority of them regular bikes.

Very rarely does someone with an e-bike come around. A couple of new bike companies insist that the bike be used with a specific Android app; this digital technology around cycling alarms Bernd. “I have a rooted smartphone, and if I were to buy this bike, I cannot use it or claim a warranty, which is ridiculous.”

Bernd also finds it strange that brands make it difficult for customers to repair their bikes themselves. “It’s sad when bike brands force people to buy replacement parts only from them. It is great when you can just buy the spare parts at your local hardware shop,” he says. At the ADFC workshop, people can get generic spare parts, but if their bike needs special parts, those have to be purchased by the customers themselves. 

The Berlin Transport Administration recently inaugurated the first of its 20 free public bike repair pillars, at Alexanderstraße in Mitte, with an air pump, a bike stand and all the common tools needed for bike repairs. The viaduct between Göritzer Bahnhof and Kottbusser Tor also has a public repair pillar to fix your bikes. But if you need a bigger fix and want an expert to weigh in, the repair cafés are the way to go.

Stitch and Sharpen

On the second Sunday of the month, one section of the bar and cultural space BAIZ on Schönhauser Allee transforms into a mini tailoring shop to fix damaged clothes. Two Singer sewing machines occupy tables near the entrance. A plastic box with a leopard-print cover contains accessories such as scissors, needles, threads and machine attachments. Classical music playing in the background offers a reprieve from the otherwise repetitive metallic clatter of the sewing machines. The textile repair café has been in operation for 10 years, catering to the stitching and alteration needs of people who don’t feel like shelling out at their local Änderungsschneiderei

Germany will account for two million tonnes of annual textile waste by 2025.

“We don’t charge for our service, rather, we operate on a donation basis, as we get our own instruments. We also advise on how to fix your clothes yourself,” says Marc Aschenbrenner, a specialist in fixing damaged trousers who assists at the event. People stop by with bagfuls of clothing that need mending or curtains that need to be adjusted in length – anything that can be resewn, seam-ripped or stitched. “We see a lot of people coming in during the autumn, as that’s when many want to fix their winter clothes. We don’t see much footfall in the summer,” says Aschenbrenner. On the days when no one shows up, the team of four expert volunteers chit chat over coffee with the head of the bar. 

Although Berlin has its fair share of secondhand clothing shops, according to figures from the Federal Association for Secondary Raw Materials and Waste Management, Germany will account for two million tonnes of annual textile waste by 2025 – that’s 17 kilograms per person. The rise of cheap fast-fashion websites such as Shein adds to this mix. Berlin saw its first Shein pop-up café last year, where, despite no clothes being sold on the spot, the Chinese brand increased its awareness among German consumers, which is already around 66%, per a consumer insights brand KPI survey.

For Eva Carbo, who’s part of the repair team at BAIZ, what they do is a way of fighting that. “We are doing this as a resistance against this consumerist society. People prefer buying cheap things, but with this repair café Aktion, we want to show people how to use clothes responsibly and be more sustainable. We want to protest against the throwaway culture and promote giving old things a new life with little repairs,” says Carbo. While none of the experts are professional tailors, they are all associated with fabrics in their day jobs; Carbo is a professional costume maker for independent theatres.

Photo: Marília Castelli / Unsplash

While mostly dedicated to tackling textiles, the BAIZ repair café has another service: hobbyist and former radio playwright Robert* offers knife-sharpening services for “blades of all kinds: kitchen, outdoor, bread knives (serrated) and scissors”. While 95% of the blades Robert receives are kitchen knives, he finds restoring the sharpness of older knives more fulfilling, as older knives often hold huge sentimental value for their customers and are passed on generationally.

“I find sharpening the knives by hand, on my whetstone, quite meditati[ve]. But as more people were coming in, sometimes with 20-25 knives needing sharpening, I had to invest in a sharpening machine,” said Robert, showing off the appliance. Robert also offers advice on the legality of carrying certain kinds of knives: “If you can open a knife with just one hand, that’s illegal to carry around. But if you need both hands to open a knife, then it’s fine to carry it in public.”

Share the Repair

Back at NochMall, Adrian has spent around 20 minutes using different tweezers to get that rubber around the components of the CD tray. He then referred to the photos he had taken to reassemble the CD player circuit boards in the right place. When he powered it on, the CD tray functioned as good as new. Adrian’s happiness was evident. “This experience has really broadened my understanding of technology. The next time there is an issue with my CD player, I feel I could do it myself,” he says.

The electronics repair cafés are a great option if you plan ahead, and aren’t in too much of a hurry to get things fixed. But what happens when your work laptop stops functioning and you want it fixed immediately? Repair Circle is a Berlin-based online platform that allows you to find a vetted electronics repair shop in your neighbourhood. Its founders, Nikki Anderssen and Mohan Ramadoss, came up with the idea for Repair Circle at a hackathon in 2022 and have been operating since last year. 

Consumer behaviour still needs to change to embrace more sustainability

“We surveyed around 300 Berliners and found that most felt repairing their smartphone or laptop was an expensive affair. We wanted to challenge this perception. Also, many people don’t trust repair shops. People have become habituated to buying new and trusting new products over repaired products,” says Anderssen. If you want to fix your smartphone, laptop, or other consumer electronics, you can fill out a form on Repair Circle’s page with the model number and the issue. You will then be presented with repair shop options within your locality, the estimated repair or spare parts cost, and a turnaround time.

“We don’t want to put the local repair shops out of business. We want to help them grow, hire, and train new people,” says Anderssen, noting that Repair Circle wants to democratise repair and show people how vibrant, accessible, and affordable it can be. And the tide on refurbished electronics is turning, she says. “The linear economy, unsustainable use and throwing away of electronics is a culture and a style that is no longer as popular as it was.”

Photo: Cecep Rahmat / Unsplash

Nico from Repair and Friends feels that consumer behaviour still needs to change to embrace more sustainability. “It’s because of the consumers’ psychological behaviour that the industry is happy to build low-quality products. It’s not planned obsolescence but more of a psychological obsolescence when you only want the cheapest and newest products, and the market delivers on that,” says Nico, who feels that repairing things should be a subject taught in schools.

Many of the experts at repair cafés across town have been around for decades, and there’s some fear that many of the crafts won’t be passed on. “It’s true that many repair cafés have older experts,” says Hansing, “but the younger generation is getting involved too. Repair cafés have only grown over the years, and it is a sustainable model. There will be a lot of demand to repair smaller electronic items and become more sustainable with things.”

Some of the volunteers are now looking to the government for support for repair cafés, to boost their growing base of Berliners. “The bare minimum the Berlin government could do is to provide public spaces for repair café initiatives to encourage resilient practices. They could also promote this culture as a way for the community to come together,” says Hansing. But others are sceptical that the government will ever help out – so they’ll keep fixing Berlin the way they know how: for free, for the community, and for the love of making something new again.

*Names shortened or changed for privacy

Get your fix

  • Noch Mall, Auguste-Viktoria-Allee 99 (every Thursday, 15:00-19:30), details.
  • Kultur und Schankwirtschaft BAIZ, Schönhauser Allee 26A (every second Sunday, 16:00-19:00), details.
  • ADFC Selbsthilfewerkstatt, Möckernstr. 47, (Mon without appointment, 18:00-20:00; Wed & Fri with appointment, 17:00-20:00), details.
  • HubSchrauber Fahrrad Selbsthilfe Werkstatt, Am Weidendamm 3 (Mon 18:00-20:00, Tue 17:00-19:00), details.
  • Repair Café Soldiner Kiez, Osloer Str. 12 (every second & fourth Thursday, 17:00-20:00), details.
  • Mahalle, Waldemarstr. 110, every first Saturday, 14-18, details.
  • Bund Repair Café Schöneberg, Crellestr. 35 (every third Monday of the month, 17:00-20:00), register on their website.

More info on RepairCircle here.