It’s not just the neat rows of Victorian doorknobs and Art Deco sconces in Seth Barrett’s shop that make it feel like a lovely anachronism–like a set from the back lot of a Frank Capra movie about a neighborhood handyman. It’s more than the worn windowfront workbench where Barrett is rewiring a 1920s lamp. It’s also Barrett’s deep sense of his hometown’s rhythms. He knows half the folks who walk by his store. He knows the inner workings of the dozens of Federal homes and turn-of-the-century townhouses he’s repaired. And when a woman comes in asking for a custom screen door, Barrett says that her outward-opening back door is against code. The woman is disappointed, but also happy. Here, finally–someone to trust. Spend time in his shop and you’ll find that you’re in the real heart of a town.
The nuts and bolts of Village Green Renewal lie in fixing and making just about anything that doesn’t require a license. Barrett and his team will rethread your window sashes, unjam your locks, fix a broken sculpture, service your bikes, restore an old tub, or turn a new banister rail. In a world of easy disposability, they aim to help people hold on to and restore the past.
The Learning Curve
“My mother and father were mad-scientist types and didn’t have time for the mundane stuff of parenting,” Barrett says, “but they had a lot of tools and supplies, so I had free reign. They became my toys.” A former builder, his specialty was detail and finish work, but once he reached his 40s, “I really needed something that I could age into,” he says. “I can do this when I’m 90.” He continues to round out his education, taking classes in lost arts such as chair caning at The Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts in Jamaica Plain.
The Pressure Cooker
“We recently repaired three Cromwellian chairs that were nearly 400 years old,” Barrett says. “They were held together by eight-sided tapered pegs that had to be carved by hand.” Knowing how to fix them required a crash course in Puritan-era furniture design. But his most difficult fix by far, he says, was “a rusty, bent, maladjusted kinetic sculpture” that needed nearly 40 hours to be put right again.
A Word of Advice
As much as Barrett wants the business, he also wants customers to learn simple repairs. “There’s no reason people shouldn’t have the ability to manipulate their environments,” he says. “Say, to fix the stove–it’s usually the breaker or a bad bulb.” He’s working to restore shop class and other hands-on skills training in local schools and at Brookline’s forthcoming teen center, now under construction. “I want to reinforce that it’s okay to be in the trades,” he says. “We’re training the manual fields out of our kids, and the ones with that propensity are getting the short end of the stick.”
Who Comes to You?
Anyone in metro Boston, mostly Brookline, with anything to fix is likely to walk through the door. And since the town is home to hundreds of old houses in various states of renovation and maintenance, Seth Barrett is a busy man.