Building community at the Richmond tool library
This story aired in the April 12, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.
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On Wednesday afternoons, Micah Brumfield is on duty at the library. From his stool behind the counter, he greets a woman who walks in. “Hello, hello,” she replies, with an air of familiarity that suggests she’s a regular. But she’s not here for books.
“Are you here to check out that lawnmower right there?” Brumfield asks, already knowing the answer. This is the Richmond Tool Library, where residents of the city can rent everything from a lawnmower to a table saw — totally free of charge.
As he walks towards the lawnmower, Brumfield decides to make sure that this is the right tool for this particular woman’s needs. He asks, “Your space is pretty small, right?”
“Yes,” she confirms. “It’s just a patch of grass in the backyard.”
Satisfied, Brumfield says, “OK, so I’m going to give you the cordless one.” When he wheels the mower out, she exclaims, “Perfect!”
Brumfield says that borrowing from the tool library is a convenient alternative for people who don’t have the space or budget to invest in a personal tool collection. “I think it really encourages people to know that they have a place they can go to. They don’t have to pay for it, which is a huge barrier in a community like Richmond where everything is incredibly expensive. You can’t afford to spend that $200 on a lawnmower that you might only use once a month.”
Richmond residents can use the tools they check out for a whole week before they have to bring their rentals back. his is more than just a public tool shed, though. It’s a place to swap ideas — and even materials. When one patron who rented the chainsaw comes in to return it, Brumfield is hopeful the man has something else for him as well. Brumfield is really into woodworking, and lately he’s been trying to make wooden coasters. “Did you get any pretty good sized logs?”
But the patron was having trouble with the chainsaw losing battery too quickly. He didn’t forget Brumfield though and promises to bring him some logs next time. Brumfield is flattered the patron remembered his project. “Maybe I’ll make you a couple of coasters out of it.”
The patron confirms, “I still got more.”
When they can, the Richmond Tool Library patrons really do try to help each other. I meet Lindy Dugan, a retired physician who is at the library to pick up a power washer for her last project. “It’s quite a lovely community meeting place,” she says.
She tells me about the time she rented the electric Sawzall to prune a branch off of her lemon tree. Dugan got to talking with the woman who’d checked it out before her. “She wanted to know what I was doing, and she said, ‘Well, boy. That’s kind of tricky for your first time. Why don’t I come over and give you a hand?’”
But that sense of community and support hasn’t made Lindy more reliant on others. It’s actually empowered her. After thinking about all of the projects she’s completed and people she’s met through the Richmond Tool Library, Dugan says, “I really feel that it’s giving me health and helping me keep mentally alive and learning and adapting.”
Dugan invites me to her home in Atchison Village to see her use the borrowed power washer in action.
When I arrive, she ushers me into the backyard where she’s prepping the shed so she can paint it. As she screws her garden hose into the power washer, she tells me she didn’t even know this step was necessary at first. “I did it once,” she says, and then goes on to explain how she got a sander from the tool library and took off the old paint. Then she put on a coat of primer. “And my self-taught skills — I didn’t see anything about power washing,” she says, with a hint of a smile.
It was obvious she had missed something, though. The primer wouldn’t adhere. She had to re-sand the shed. But Dugan takes that sort of thing in stride. As she turns on the spigot to pressure wash the debris away, she offers a bit of advice: “The important thing is just to remember that you’re learning, and it’s all a journey, and each time it’ll get maybe, hopefully, a little better.”
She cuts the power washer on and lets it rip.
The pressure washer is loud, so I just watch Dugan — who’s clearly having a blast using the tools she’s checked out of the Richmond Tool Library — as she blasts the side of her shed. When she finally cuts the power, she says, “Looks pretty clean, doesn’t it?”
Stories like these are exactly what Guadalupe Morales, a city employee who manages the tool library, wants to hear. “I think we want to encourage people to try new things, explore that creativity, whatever it is — if it’s tools, fixing your backyard, doing DIY home projects. We just want people to do more of that.” And because it’s all free, Morales says, “It’s accessible for everyone. There’s no limit to whatever your income level is, whatever background is.”
Morales grew up near the border of Richmond and San Pablo, but she started her adult life in Richmond as an Americorps volunteer, promoting group clean-up events to help people beautify their communities. “With cleanups, we needed tools,” she says.
She and a colleague heard about this Parks Department employee informally lending out shovels and rakes to Richmond residents who were interested in small street cleanups. That’s when Morales and her colleagues got the idea to start a tool library.
It took some time. “Months and months of planning,” she says. “And talking a lot with Berkeley and Oakland.” Berkeley’s had a tool library since 1979, and Oakland’s had once since 2000, so their librarians had plenty of advice on how to get started. After all that planning and a successful crowdfunding campaign, the Richmond Tool Library opened its doors in June 2016 — and it’s been a hit.
Morales says, “It’s been good, and I think a lot of it has been people’s or the community’s demand for tools.” It became so popular with Richmond residents that the city took note. The city council approved a budget for the library, and Morales, who got a job with the city after her Americorps term ended, has worked to keep it growing.
“People have asked about automotive tool lending, bike repair tool lending,” Morales says. In addition to expanding services, she’s also been thinking about expanded hours and locations for the library. “It sounds like maybe the next phase would be to have maybe more satellite branches.”
In fact, her colleagues have just launched a new service to bring tools to people in farther away neighborhoods. On the first Saturday of February, I meet a team of Richmond city employees — including Stephanie Ny, the project manager, and Jessica Walden, a library aide — at the Richmond Recreation Complex.
I watch them hitch a trailer filled with power tools, hand tools, and a bike repair kit to a city-owned truck, and then I follow them to a church parking lot off of Fred Jackson Way in North Richmond.
As soon as they arrive, the team gets to work. They open the back of the trailer and set up a tent and a table with equipment to check out their inventory.
It wasn’t long before a car parked nearby, and the driver gets out and heads their way. Ny calls out, “Are you here for the North Richmond Mobile Tool Library?”
“Yes, I am,” the driver confirms.
Ny, who couldn’t contain her excitement, cheers, “Yay!”
The driver, who seemed to have been planning this visit for a little while, asks, “This is y’all’s first Saturday?”
Ny replies, “Yes, you’ll be our very first client.”
The new Mobile Tool Library will be at this site on Fred Jackson Way to serve the residents of North Richmond every first and third Saturday of the month. It will bring tools to people who might otherwise not be able to access them at the main library. On this first day, most people who stopped by were curious, but a little hesitant.
When I ask Brother Rod Parker — the deacon for the church that’s offered up its parking lot for this service — if he’d use the library, he tells me, “I’m all thumbs,” meaning he’s not very handy, so he doesn’t see himself doing much carpentry or plumbing. He says, “As far as fixing things, the only thing I would use if you had it in there would be a lawnmower.”
Ny, who is standing nearby, chimes in to let Brother Parker know the library has two, in fact.
Brother Parker, incredulous at the news, exclaims, “No, you don’t!”
Ny, eager to provide tools to the residents of North Richmond, says, “It’s not there right now, but we do have them. You can rent it.”
That piques Brother Parker’s interest. “Now, OK, what’s the details about the renting?”
The North Richmond Mobile Tool Library is new, but if the stationary library is any indication, it could become more than just a place to rent tools. It could become a real community hub.