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  Flair for Fixes
Film celebrates vanishing breed

Carolyne Zinko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 1999 
©1999 San Francisco Chronicle 

In a room the size of a walk-in closet, a clump of vacuum cleaners -- 23, to be exact -- huddle in disrepair, next to shelves full of toastless toasters, lightless lamps and other broken appliances. 

Drawers from floor to ceiling burst with odds and ends for mending, from toaster handles and hair dryer switches to beaters for every electric mixer imaginable. 

It's enough to give a neatnik the shudders. 

But Bill Wagner, perched on a stool in his workshop at Menlo Vacuum & Fix It, considers the tiny Menlo Park shop where he has tinkered with all things mechanical for the past 27 years an operating room, and himself an appliance doctor of sorts. 

"I like to give things a new lease on life,'' he said. "And I feel bad for the environment that people are throwing things away.'' 

That waste-not, want-not philosophy -- increasingly rare in a throwaway culture --
is getting Wagner his 15 minutes of fame as the subject of a new short documentary by award- winning filmmaker Dorothy Fadiman. 

"Fix-It Shops: An Endangered Species,'' actually a six-minute film, celebrates a dying breed of local business but also serves a deeper purpose: to present a new dimension in environmentalism. 

Fadiman has focused in the past on the weightier topics of abortion and elementary education. "When Abortion Was Illegal'' was nominated for an Oscar in 1993
in the documentary short subject category; "From Danger to Dignity,'' won a TV Emmy in 1997. "The Fragile Promise of Choice'' was released to acclaim two years ago. 

"Fix-It Shops'' was intended to be a breather. 

In many ways, it is a lighthearted piece that puts a name and face to anonymous people, in this case, those laboring to restore mundane household items and family treasures. 

On another level, the film is a tool to spur discussion about conservation.Fadiman hopes to encourage similar screenings and community meetings around the nation. 

"People can go above and beyond recycling cans and bottles,'' she said. "I want to raise awareness -- that this is the next step, that people don't have to throw away small household appliances that can be fixed.'' 

Wagner and associates George Lynch and Greg Page are among those featured
in the film, which captures their hands at work and also their contemplations
of the value of what they do. 

By fixing appliances, Wagner says, they make them "live again.'' 

Page describes the instant reward in making a lamp work, turning it on and off.
"You don't need anyone to applaud,'' he quips dryly. 

"Fix-It Shops'' also indirectly raises questions about society and intensive marketing that drives consumers' perceived needs for ever new and improved products. 

Wagner, like owners of other fix-it shops around the Bay Area, said he considers repairs just one part of his job. 

The other is education about the value of paying more for well-made appliances that will last, rather than buying inexpensive products with plastic innards that cannot be repaired and end up in landfills after a year of use, Wagner said. 

About 5 percent of the waste stream consists of discarded appliances, according to a recent study in Alameda County, and that percentage will grow as the use of plastics increases, said Ann Schneider, a recycling market development manager at the University of California at Santa Cruz. 

For Wagner, particularly frustrating is the trend toward more flash to satisfy consumers' desires for trendy appliances, such as toasters with digital displays. 

"A lot of things that involve electronics shouldn't, like heating appliances where you're combining heat and high current with circuit boards. It makes the appliance fail more often,'' Wagner said. 

In Oakland, Mike Conley, president of California Electric Service, which has 15 repair shops across the state, said manufacturers are partly to blame for increasing
the loads in the landfills, by making and promoting products on the basis of low price. 

Toasters from the 1960s can function as well as they ever did, with a few minor repairs, he said. By comparison, a $15 toaster made today usually works for no more than a year or two, and is virtually impossible to repair, he said. 

"Consumers want things at a certain price and manufacturers accommodate that,
but they do it by making things more cheaply in Asia with inferior parts,'' Conley said. "We're importing garbage from overseas, because that's where it ends up.
We use it and then it stops working and we throw it out.'' 

Warranties on inexpensive products are virtually useless, he said, because many products cannot be opened up without destroying them. In other cases, manufacturers do not even make replacement parts. 

As a result, service centers simply replace the broken product with a new one. 

"It defeats the whole conservation effort we're trying to make,'' said Conley, who has canceled service contracts with manufacturers whose products cannot be fixed. 

©1999 San Francisco Chronicle. Reprinted with permission.

URL of the originating article: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/1999/04/30/MN83582.DTL
 

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