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  • Writer's pictureWorld Half Full

Tool library chips away, one borrow at a time

BUSINESS/COMMUNITY



With its monthly roving repair cafés and nearly 5,000 items to lend, Buffalo’s Tool Library is chipping away at throwaway consumerism, one borrow at a time. Since 2017, roving cafés have traversed Buffalo (pop. 278,349), New York and its environs, helping local individuals, small businesses and community organisations repair broken electronics, household goods and small appliances. The cafés are also part of a regional movement built on sustainability, communal resource-sharing and mutual aid. Worldwide, that movement is now more than 3,000 strong. 


To date, The Tool Library, a 13-year-old nonprofit, has diverted 3.5 tonnes of waste from landfill via its repair cafés. It also serves as a model, a resource and a centralised hub for a range of other community sharing projects, from little free libraries to public gardens. 


“We’re part of a broader economic transition away from a system that really hasn’t been serving most people, locally or around the world,” says Darren Cotton, The Tool Library’s founder and executive director. “We’re shifting toward models that are more sustainable, more regenerative and that rely more on people helping one another, as opposed to a market delivering services.” 


Cotton, 35, first dreamt up plans for The Tool Library while studying urban planning at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The university is an economic and cultural engine for the region, but its decision to open a suburban campus in the 1960s siphoned both people and resources away from University Heights, the city neighbourhood surrounding its original campus. 


By the late 2000s, entire blocks of University Heights had been gobbled up by absentee landlords who leased their neglected properties back to low-income renters and students. Residents wanted to fix up their homes and deal with wider neighbourhood problems, such as street rubbish and low tree coverage. But they often lacked access to basic tools, or how to use them.


“It was a convergence of all these different problems,” Cotton says. “I realised, ‘Wow — a library is such a great platform for addressing all of them.’” 


The Tool Library launched in a tiny storefront in 2011 with roughly 40 tools and US$15,000 in federal community development funding. Cotton and his all-volunteer staff developed a membership model, where residents could pay a low annual fee for unlimited tool rentals, as well as a system for tracking their growing inventory of hand tools, power tools and lawn and garden equipment.


In 2022, Cotton took on a full-time role and hired Lissa Rhodes, a poet and trained carpenter, as the Tool Library’s first operations manager. A year later, The Tool Library relocated to the ground floor of an old neighbourhood bank on Buffalo’s Main Street, expanding its footprint from 140 square metres to more than 230 square metres. 


Today, the organisation boasts nearly 1,500 members and processes more than 14,000 loans a year. Its wide east- and south-facing windows overlook a bright lending room, where tools are shelved in neat blocks of Ryobi green and DeWalt yellow: drills, jigsaws, sanders, drivers, lawnmowers and leaf blowers, hydraulic jacks, router tables. An entire wall is hung with coils of extension cords and hoses, while several shelves gather the library’s growing collection of household miscellanea. 


“A tool is anything you need to get a job done, whatever that job is,” says Rhodes. “Is it a presentation? Then your tools are a projector screen and a projector.” 


That community-minded, DIY ethos has gradually prodded The Tool Library into other initiatives, including tree plantings, park clean-ups and — of course — repair cafés. In 2017, a director with Buffalo’s recycling department approached The Tool Library about collaborating on a series of repair events.


Since then, and despite a hiatus during covid, the repair café has salvaged more than 500 items. Volunteers will happily tinker with lamps, furniture, small appliances, bikes, broken windows and damaged clothes, though they don’t currently accept computers, tablets or phones. 


At the March café, a team of volunteers set up shop in the basement of a public library in Akron, a small village northeast of Buffalo. The room hummed with quiet chatter and the intermittent vrooms of faulty vacuum cleaners. Volunteer fixers puttered around a coffee station and traded stories in between work on lamps, clocks, food mixers and old CD players. The atmosphere is both studious and social; over time, fixers often become friends. They also teach attendees the skills needed to make their own repairs. “What I love is that you not only get your fixes for free, but you get a lesson as well,” says Antoinette McClain, a Tool Library board member who helps organise the events. 


Many of those fixes are quite simple, which makes the impulse to bin these items look all the more wasteful. Both of the broken vacuum cleaners at the March café simply needed a good clean, for instance. Jennifer and Rebecca Outten, who brought the vacuum cleaners, said they would have spent US$400 or more to replace each one.


As with many small community nonprofits, The Tool Library faces the usual financial constraints. It will soon have the option, for instance, to acquire the building it moved into last year — but the cost to acquire and renovate the structure tops US$1 million. Cotton says the library is planning a capital campaign, and is currently a finalist for a major regional foundation grant. With that funding, he adds, The Tool Library could build out new community space, seed mini-libraries across the region and further champion communal resource-sharing as a model for social and environmental innovation. 


“It’s one thing to be cool and novel and niche,” Cotton notes. “But the question for us is: How do we make sharing and repairing ubiquitous?”


Australia has a number of tool libraries. To find one near you visit here.



TOP The March repair café held in the basement of a public library in the village of Akron

ABOVE The Tool Library with some of its 5,000 items

PHOTOS The Tool Library


We’re part of a broader economic transition away from a system that really hasn’t been serving most people, locally or around the world. We’re shifting toward models that are more sustainable, more regenerative and that rely more on people helping one another, as opposed to a market delivering services.

Darren Cotton



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