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Good times for repair shops and secondhand stores

Economizing Americans look for ways to stretch the useful life of everything from shoes to computers.

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Fix-It: James Horton patronizes an Oakland, Calif., firm that refurbishes used computers.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor

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Americans are rediscovering the fusty fix-it shops and unassuming secondhand stores on their local Main Streets. These businesses, once the left-behind nooks of gentrifying downtowns, are busier than ever amid an economic slump that's emptied out neighboring bistros, boutiques, and day spas.

On a Saturday afternoon in downtown Alameda, Calif., Gabe Morgan waits in a line of customers at The Watch Hospital to get a timepiece fixed. The economic downturn has made him think more about repairing than buying new.

"For the first time in I don't remember how long, I got some shoes repaired," says Mr. Morgan. He dug out three pairs from his closet for resoling. "I wanted to save some money."

For decades, repair and reuse have been fading ethics, upheld mainly by environmentalists and people on the economic margins. As hard times drive these values back into the mainstream, champions of reuse caution that some government policies and business practices threaten to set back the movement.

"We were a mend-and-make-do society, and we have completely changed. We don't fix anything anymore. We use, throw away, and buy more," says Bruce Buckelew, a former IBM engineer who has repaired more than 30,000 computers and put them into public schools, nonprofits, and low-income households in Oakland, Calif. "The worse the stock market gets and the bleaker the job market, the better for reuse, actually."

Some early signs:

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