Sunday, January 5, 2014

The economics of repair

How much would you pay to repair your well-loved hiking boots?

I was following a friend’s Facebook conversation about her hiking boots that were falling apart which she was hoping to get repaired. Her next update mentioned the potential price of the repair and that she was not willing to spend that much. I don’t know how much her boots cost, but my guess is the repair would cost more than half the price of replacement boots.

I do not have a very good understanding of the North American history of the commerce of repairing things, but my general sense is repairing household items used to be a larger part of our economy. I remember as a child going with my dad to take our old black & white tv to be repaired. I once took my now 30+ year old stereo tuner/amp to be repaired. (This tuner currently sits in a cabinet made of the wooden shell of that old black and white tv.)

The last time I recall paying to have something of mine repaired I paid a leather/fur shop to patch a hole or two in my beloved leather jacket. The repair likely cost more than the cash value of the jacket – but my emotional attachment to the jacket was quite high. The jacket has since worn beyond any reasonable sense to repair. (I don’t believe the shop that did the work is still in business.)

If, as I suspect, repairing things used to be a more significant part of our economy than it is now, I’m curious about what has caused the change. I have theories, but not a lot of data to back them up.

My main theory is the cost to create household goods has become relatively much cheaper than the cost to repair them. This is likely due in part to the mechanization of production, but probably more to the fact that most products are created in places where the human cost of production is significantly lower than North American standards. If an object is made in Bangladesh, where the labor costs are X and someone seeks to repair that object in North America, where labor costs are 10 x X then how can it make any economic sense to have something repaired. (I would also be very curious to know if repairing things is a much larger part of the economy in same low cost places where these items are manufactured?)

The secondary theory is that except for very high quality, and expensive objects, few things are built with the idea that repair would/could/should even happen. It is much easier to repair good quality metal that has been riveted or bolted, than to repair plastic moldings that are attached via plastic connectors. Poorly made things are really hard to repair.

Repairing books

As far as I can tell, it rarely makes much economic sense to repair most books. Books are so relatively inexpensive and so likely to be poorly made that unless the person doing the repair charges an unsustainably low amount there is no way this transaction makes any sense.

Now there are those books of significant financial value, but even when these are repaired it is my understanding that the increase in value to the book is seldom more than the expense of the repair. (Two comments: 1) like many of the things said in this post, I don’t know that this assertion is absolutely accurate, it is more of a somewhat informed impression I have; and 2) Yes, yes, valuable books aren’t “repaired” they are “conserved” or “restored” or some such activity for which you can charge more than for simple repair.)

And yet people continue to seek our individuals to repair their books. When they find such a person and present their repair request one of three results is likely: 1) they gasp at the cost for such a service and leave with book untouched; 2) the person providing the repair service offers to do the work at a rate that does not support a livelihood; or 3) they agree to pay the reasonable rate for the repair, because they value the book for reasons other than economic.

A lot of book repair is just not driven by economic values. I think a lot of repair is driven by emotional value – which explains in part the high volume of family bible repair.

I wonder if this emphasis on emotional value is the case the case for most other repair activities in today’s North American economy? Is most repair work driven by values other than economic, and most likely emotional? What are the other things we value so highly as to pay to repair?

I don’t know. I’m just sitting in a hotel room waiting out a winter storm and letting my mind – and typing hands – wander. 


  1. For me, it is one part of my job I actually enjoy.

    1. Mary Jo, I really enjoy repairing books as well. I find it very satisfying work (at least when it goes well), but I'm also glad I don't have the challenge of having to make a living at repairing books.

    2. Kevin - True and I have I think a misdirected idea this is something I might be able to do when I retire for $$$. But I believe you are right, I enjoyed reading your insights.