On a recent Wednesday morning at 11:45, two pickup trucks and a station wagon had already pulled into the drive in front of the Berkeley Tool Lending Library at the corner of Russell and Martin Luther King Way.
Adam Broner, who maintains the library, and Bud Burleson, a retired city electrician who is filling in that day, wheeled out several containers holding an assortment of shovels, posthole diggers and other garden tools. On the wall Burleson hung the pole saws and below them he arranged several aluminum step ladders.
When Broner opened the two doors to the library, another busy day began. Some patrons came in returning tools, others were checking them out. Broner checked library cards and IDs while answering the phone that never seemed to stop ringing. Burleson tried to find a minute to attend to the ongoing job of sharpening a few tools.
Even though folks are often lined up several deep, Broner, who has been working at the tool library for 14 years, manages to be full of good humor and ready to dispense advice.
“This time of year, our garden tools are most in demand. In fact, I’m going to order some new weed eaters. We just can’t keep up with the demand,” he said.
But garden tools make up a small part of the inventory. There’s a big assortment of carpentry and woodworking tools, just about everything you might need for a concrete or masonry project, equipment to lay a floor, put up a wall, and even equipment for electrical work or solving a plumbing and drainage problem.
Broner said that over 5,000 tools go out each month. “Once I figured that added up to 2.37 tools per patron,” he said, laughing.
Charlie Bowen, with the Berkeley Path Wanderers group, does her share to increase that average. If it’s late in the week, you might run into her loading up the trunk of her car with as many as 10 garden tools—the borrowing limit. The tools will be handed out to the volunteers who work together most weekends in the arduous—but satisfying—task of carving out usable pathways on the unimproved public pathways that link streets in the Berkeley hills.
Broner has help to meet all these diverse needs. He works with several other tool library employees: Angel Entes, a cabinet maker, Robert Young and Jason Armstrong.
“Together we add up to just over two full time employees,” he said.
The tool lending library has come a long way since 1979 when it was started by Pete McElligott in a trailer. He worked by himself for 10 years, originally operating under a federal grant. Now the library has expanded into its permanent building and is funded by property taxes like the rest of the library system.
The place is not just about tools. The shelves to the right when you come in are stacked with copies of Fine Homebuilding magazine and another shelf of binders contain information on other subjects. If you can’t find what you want there Broner can direct you to publications available at the South Branch Library a few steps away.
The tool lending library itself is open five days a weeks: Saturday and Tuesday 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday noon to 7:30 p.m., Friday afternoon from 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Along with a Berkeley Public Library card and a photo ID, you’ll need some kind of proof that you’re a Berkeley resident (a recent utility bill will do). Depending on the tool, tools are loaned for either three or seven days.
Unlike the more muted atmosphere in the branch library next door, the tool lending library is always bustling and sometimes noisy. Patrons swap stories, and advice is passed back and forth. “What’s the best way to unplug the toilet fast?”
Broner can probably best be described as having a full plate. In addition to the 25 hours a week he spends at the lending library, he is also the preparer for the Berkeley Art Center at Live Oak Park and is presently hanging a new exhibit. In his “spare time” he is building a sound studio for some local musicians.
Through a long-time patron, Gil Ferrey, Broner heard about the Berkeley Rotary project helping to build a public library in Chacala, a fishing village on the west coast of Mexico. Broner volunteered his time to set up a tool library, beginning with tools mostly donated by the local Rotarians.
“Once I was back in the Bay Area, I thought often about their tool library, wondering how it was doing,” Broner said. “When I returned the next spring the number of tools had almost doubled, and a young guy who was apprenticing to become an auto mechanic had volunteered to keep the tools in good repair.”
When the Friends of the Berkeley Public Library (a group of dedicated volunteers who raise funds for library with their two bookstores) got wind of the project, they helped fund his trip to Mexico.
Phila Rogers is a Friends of the Berkeley Library board member.