It occurred to me after visiting Repair Lair, Nancy Ford’s singular repair-and-reuse shop on East Lake Street, on a rainy day in March, that almost all of my friends in high school had, for the most part, shopped at secondhand stores. We were a punked-out, idealistic bunch (we once plastered Dinkytown with anti-Exxon fliers). But we were also intensely practical. We patched our own jackets and fixed our own skate-board bearings when they popped. We feasted on music and conviction. Had fate placed Nancy Ford in the same generation and crew, she might’ve been our ringleader. She’s at once generous, salty, outspoken, and hospitable.
Ford worked for 15 years at Midwest Mountaineering, and peppered her stint there with a variety of exploratory posts around the world, working as a wilderness therapist, an ice-core driller in the Antarctic at McMurdo Station, and a towboat deckhand, among many other things.
As the years went by, she began sticking around Minneapolis for longer periods between adventures. Back at work, she noticed that more and more customers were requesting repairs, and fewer were willing to plunk down cash for new gear. When customers struck out at the clearance rack, Ford would scrounge the lost and found box for them. This ungrudging attitude to find a solution, coupled with her growing discomfort at her own stockpile of gear, lead Ford to open Repair Lair in June of 2014. When the store began, it was just her. Now there are four employees, Lucy, the coonhound/Australian shepherd/store mascot, and a great surplus of affordable outdoor gear.
For the past few years, Ford has been steadily growing—and growing out of—her space on East Lake. Inside the shop, the air carries the tang of a thrift store: equal parts must, polyurethane, and gym sock. This speaks more to the past lives of the merchandise—walls and walls of bags, hiker packs, tents, raincoats, and, yes, even a kayak—than it does their quality. Enviable brands like Woolrich, Pendleton, Choco, and Keen decorate racks and shelves.
What sets Ford’s shop apart from other reuse places is her focus on repair, from zippers to tent patching to straps and snaps and buckles.
To put the scene into perspective, at Repair Lair, a zipper slider or whole zipper replacement will cost anywhere from $15–$100. A new Patagonia coat, on the other hand, can run you $150–$500. Or, let’s say you have a burn hole in your tent. Ford will patch it for $25. While cheap solo tents at big-box stores may cost around that amount, a good tent—the kinds that are usually brought in for just such repairs—can cost upwards of $350.
On the top of Ford’s to-do list is make a 60–90 second video highlighting other repair/reuse shops in the Twin Cities. It may seem odd to highlight the competition, but Ford doesn’t see it that way. She sees herself as part of a larger community, where the ethos “waste not, want not” trumps remuneration. Among her eco-cousins? Junket: Tossed and Found, a secondhand mercantile shop in South Minneapolis that offers classes on topics as disparate as soap-making and small-business management; Old World Cobbler Shoe & Leather Repair, which will settle any and every shoe quandary you’ve got; and Fast Eddie’s in Dinkytown, which mends backpacks, purses, belts, and beyond.
Ford would also seek to highlight a fleet of lone wolves in the video—un-branded individuals quietly working away at their repairs—fellow “curious cockroaches” (Nancy’s term for fix-it people) who service fly-fishing rods, scuba gear, and electronics. “They do shit I can’t do,” Ford says. “Julie from Junket—what she does with all her stuff that gets donated to Junket—compared to my few things…I wouldn’t be able to keep up!”
In addition to those establishments and individuals, another resource for people looking for alternatives to buying new is the University of Minnesota’s ReUse Program. The program collects surplus furniture, textiles, lighting, and other equipment from departments around the Twin Cities campus (as well as donations from the public) and hosts a massive warehouse sale every Thursday and every first Saturday of the month.
Then, of course, there are the many re-upholsterers (Miller, Harrian) and second-hand shops (2nd Swing Golf, Practical Goods, Buffalo Exchange, Everyday People) throughout the city. Repair/reuse culture can also be seen in companies like Wood from the Hood, who repurpose discarded urban trees into furniture and cribbage boards, cutting boards, frames, etc., or Loll Designs, who makes modern furniture from recycled milk jugs.
As for right now, Ford has been using the hashtag #unfillthelandfill to communicate her commitment to reuse/repair culture. “There’s way too much shit on this planet,” she says. The line might sound like another barroom aphorism, but, coming from Ford, it feels personal, political—and stands as her business credo and personal conviction. You won’t catch her waxing eloquent about any certain brand. “Deep down, I’m just cheap,” she says, and lets out a hearty cackle. “Gives me more money for beer.”
Of course, that’s only part of the truth. During our conversation, she spoke of humanitarian efforts in Nicaragua and the cheerless dorm-room lodgings of factory workers in China.
In a perfect world, Ford says she’d like to have more time to collaborate with other repair/reuse gurus in the city, and perhaps open a second, bigger location in which she could partner with a bike mechanic and boat repair-person. While some people may be quick to dismiss Repair Lair as little more than a quirky shop, the truth is that Ford has built something truly substantial. In our current bombastic political landscape and obsession with brand-shellacking (i.e. conjuring authenticity), Ford hunkers down and makes meaning—and meaningful interaction—always in the name of helping others.
When asked why she goes the extra mile, Ford says she asks herself that same question. Whatever the answer, East Lake Street, Minneapolis, and our ever-filling landfills are better for it.