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Goldmark, a set designer and theatre professor, launched Fixup, a series of pop-up repair shop around New York. Practically, the shops were about creating a place, alongside fellow theatre colleagues, to repair things that otherwise would be discarded.
“We would take the skills we commonly used in our backstage jobs,” Goldmark writes in the book. “Everything from carpentry and stitching to electrical work and soldering — and use them to fix people’s everyday household items."
But she had more ambitious goals, driven by a wave of stuff acquired after giving birth and desire to do something in the face of “grim environmental realities":
“I wanted to find out whether people have any interest in getting their stuff fixed. Was I alone in my rebellion against the broken toaster, the crammed apartment, and the multiplicity of frictionless paths towards the next online, fossil-fuel delivered, cheap shiny purchase?”
Fixation is about the items, and the people that brought them, to Fixup shops in their six years of operation. But it’s also about how and why we use stuff, why somethings are cheap, why repair is expensive or hard to find. Why we love HGTV but don’t have a lot of practical repair skills ourselves. I emailed Goldmark for an interview when I was two chapters in.
If you want to know how engaging I found this book, please see the all the sticky notes I put in my library copy.
I think what struck me about this book is that isn’t a book about minimalism, nor does it have particularly prescriptive tips that may or may not be useful to individual readers. She acknowledges how useful and emotional stuff can be to humans, and puts our current situation in a wider history of material culture. There’s also a lot about what repair, remaking and reusing actually entails, and how much is dependent on how stuff is created in the first place.
This book has been out for three years, so this isn’t really a traditional press cycle interview. Our discussion has been edited and condensed, fairly significantly (it was a lengthy conversation).
Taylor Kate Brown: I’ve seen a lot of books and articles that are in the vein of “100 things you can do" or "tips and tricks". This one feels more like you're talking about a mind shift, both for individuals and for specific industries.
Sandra Goldmark: The stuff around us is a lens onto some really big questions. It's just one way in, but it is a way in to understanding who we are. And that might sound insanely overblown and possibly absurd, but I actually do believe that the physical things that we make, as an individual, as a society, are one of the ways we can understand ourselves. Especially because we are a species that is so prolific in terms of what we make.
One of the things I realized when I was writing the book is all of the stuff around us is almost invisible. We don't quite realize what a big deal it is, both at the individual level in our home and on this planetary scale. We are makers, this is what we do. It's the water we swim in, and so to actually see that water and talk about that water — other writers have done it— but for me, it’s like let's look at this water that we actually have created around ourselves and that we live in every day. What’s in it? What does it mean for us and for the planet?
TKB: One of the starting points of this book is of course humans collect stuff, and that our interaction with that stuff is actually really important. It's not a minimalist book. It's not about decluttering. How does that approach show up for you in your own life and the things that you have?
Goldmark: It’s not a minimalist book — there's a lot of food analogies and food comparisons that ran through the book, and I think that minimalism, like extreme dieting, is pretty much a dead end. [Minimalism], for some people, it works for them, but for most people it feels like a negative and it can feel like you're doing everything wrong. It’s not very joyful. Food and “stuff” are how we survive, and they are important and powerful parts of little things like having a nice dinner together at a table with forks and with food — or big things, like how we understand the world.
I have two children and we live in a New York apartment. The Legos pile up and you know, I have trouble letting go of books. The house is clean, thank God and I've mostly got my children to pick up after themselves. As a set designer, I need to live in a kind of sane environment where I don't have too much clutter. But I also acknowledge that different people have different tolerances for that particular thing.
It's not: “You should have this way of living” or “Your apartment should look like this”. One of the ways that we interact with the larger planet on a daily basis is by transforming it and bringing it into our homes and onto our bodies. Every day, all day. So there's some huge opportunities there for change. And for better choices.
TKB: You use the word practice. What what does that practice look like for you on a daily basis?
Practice sounds funny, because it makes it sound like as if I'm like, pausing in in the store for 45 minutes before I purchase a scrubby sponge. That for me is not a healthy practice, either to be paralyzed or only ordering expensive perfect items on websites from far away that are handcrafted.
I try as much as possible to [think about it] the same way I am about food. I had a health problem when I was younger, and it really made me get serious about the food stuff. I can't just eat whatever I want whenever I want the way I could when I was younger, I have to be a little more careful and a little more thoughtful.
If I'm going to buy something bigger, I’m going to buy a car, a couch, a TV, an item of clothing, something where I don't have an immediate need, I can take a minute and make a choice. I'll just take a little bit longer about it and do some research. It shouldn't turn into a heavy thing for people, it shouldn’t turn into a guilty thing. Maybe habit is a better word than practice.
TKB: I'm one of the things [Fixation] talks about is businesses is including repair and reuse into their main revenues, not just as a side thing. Have you noticed any policy changes, businesses making any changes - positive or negative — since the book published?
Goldmark: Repair is the way in because we ran those repair shops for so long and the slowing down and looking at an object and fixing it for a long time. Over and over and over again. It did help us learn a lot about objects and stuff and how people interact with them because we would hear that what the customers had to say as well. It wasn't just the object in isolation. It was the object and the person who brought it in and how they spoke to us.
Every business that makes and sells stuff needs to start making and selling less new stuff, and incorporating reuse and repair into their business model. That's my prescription for the business world. Since 2020, so many businesses have begun including resale options within their offerings.
Repairs are way further behind, because it's much more difficult, but the resale market has boomed. The bad news is I would say that most businesses are introducing resale and maybe repair as an add-on, or “look at this new additional revenue stream”. But that doesn't work. You need to turn down the volume on the new stuff.
That is a hard pill to swallow in today's society. But again, back to the food analogy, like if you came to me and you said: "I'm getting really sick from all the dairy that I'm eating, terribly sick from it. But I've started eating a lot of salad in addition to my diet of milkshake and cheeses." I would be like, you are not going to get better until you've turned down the volume on that dairy, if it's making you sick. That's where we are ecologically, in terms of the extraction of materials. We need to turn down the volume on new stuff and it's not the kind of thing you hear any business trumpeting from the rooftops. They're going to tell you about their resale line, but they're not going to say we’re aiming for, you know, 10% decline in sales of new goods year over year.
TKB: It would be an entire shift for a business and how they operate.
Goldmark: The same thing by the way, is happening in the fossil fuel space. We are rushing, rightfully so, to add renewable energy, but we need credible plans to turn down that dial on the fossil fuels. Just adding renewables does not solve the problem. You have to turn down the volume on the behaviors that are causing the problem. So you know, let's see it.
TKB: You noticed how much work it could be to find a home for something else after you no longer needed it. Would you consider that to be the biggest barrier to making things more circular for individuals?
Goldmark: 100%. The jargony term is “reverse logistics." The non-jargony term is “a pain in the butt” — for anyone trying to get a chair to somebody else's house. And however you look at that problem, that is the biggest barrier. I see some signs of hope, in the sense that there are some really cool companies working on reverse logistics. I do have faith that we can build an amazingly powerful reverse logistics system like we have we built this one-way logistics system. We have the technical and imaginative capacity. We're just not there yet.
TKB: It sounds like you've stopped doing the repair shops.
Goldmark: I had a real choice in my life personally around 2019, where the shops had grown as much as they were going to grow in the container that I was giving them, i.e. short term shops while I was teaching, in between other projects. I was either going to have to quit my job and full time become a repair shop owner or startup founder, or write the book, tell the story and bring this passion for circular economy into my other work and in education.
I chose the latter, partly for very, very practical reasons. I have two kids, a mortgage and I didn't feel like, let me quit my job and start this really risky, not sexy company. I did talk to a few investors. This was early, around 2015, and circular economy was still kind of nothing. It wasn't very tech-heavy or sexy, and they were like, “I don't even know what to do with you.”
I am happy with that choice, but I do wonder if there is a next iteration of this project. I just don't know what it is.
TKB: What lessons have you found since it's been published?
Goldmark: I think that issues of consumption are a big deal. It’s about how we live, especially in places like the United States where we tend to have a lot of food, sometimes low quality food, a lot of stuff, sometimes low quality stuff and a habit of really consuming more than is good for us and good for the planet.
I think that sometimes issues of consumption can get muddied because sometimes you got people on the left who are like, don't blame me, you know, don't make it about my individual choices; it's all about what the corporations do or what the policymakers do, and I think that those, those sort of finger-pointing sessions are super reductive and not helpful. Because the fact of the matter is, overconsumption is a huge driver, not just of emissions, but of habitat loss and biodiversity problems. It's about the way we live on a really deep level in these wealthy Western countries. And knowing that we have people all over the world, who rightfully and understandably, want better standards of living and more material goods, we really have to address this. It's a huge driver and I think we have to think about it on every level: policy, business community, individual.
I feel like it gets a little lost in the shuffle: it's not only about renewable energy, we cannot just flip a switch tomorrow and switch to all renewables and be done. Consumption is a huge piece of this puzzle and I think it's messy and complicated, but we need to we need to work on it.
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