The Silicon Valley Voice

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Jim MacDonald, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Like a doctor diagnosing a patient, Repair Café electronics fixer Jim MacDonald methodically examined a paper shredder that would turn on but not shred. He was one of 23 volunteer fixers on hand to repair things for free for community members who arrived lugging nonworking household items at the Repair Café, held at Sunnyvale Library in November.

“You can’t fix it until you know how it works,” said MacDonald, a Redwood City resident and native.

He tried the easiest fix first. Fishing a coat hanger out of his red toolbox, he dislodged a wad of paper stuck in the metal cutter. It still wouldn’t rotate.


Next, he removed the screws—including one hidden under the manufacturer’s label—of the plastic container housing the inner mechanisms. A look inside revealed that a gear was stripped and needed to be replaced—if a replacement could be found.

“I do these repairs for all my friends and neighbors,” said MacDonald, who taught for 30 years in the Department of Technology at the College of San Mateo. “Like others here at Repair Café, we hate seeing this consumer society fill landfills. Most of these things are fixable—but not always.”

“I repurpose most anything I can get my hands on,” said MacDonald. “It’s very rewarding.”

Vacuums are his favorite. He figures that he’s repaired around 50 over his lifetime, even picking up discarded ones at roadsides.

“Usually, it’s a simple fix. People don’t clean them, and they get clogged,” said MacDonald. “They throw it out and get a new one.”

Of course, not everyone has yet learned to be a fixer. MacDonald’s dad taught him to be fearless in taking apart broken items to learn how they work.

“His approach was that you don’t have anything to lose. So just rip into it,” said MacDonald. “It’s like a puzzle.

“There are so many ways to pass your time,” continued MacDonald. “Why sit and watch a sitcom if you could be doing something productive?”

Repair Café started in the Netherlands and has been around the Bay Area since 2012. It has an average success rate of 50 to 70 percent. The next Repair Café is Feb. 5, 2023, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the Museum of American Heritage, 351 Homer Ave., Palo Alto.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a column where we casually interview people we meet in Silicon Valley. The column hopes to highlight what makes Santa Clara, Sunnyvale and the rest of the South Bay special — the people who live, work and play here.


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