A Quirky and Well-Loved Berkeley Library

By Adam Broner, Special to the Planet
Thursday August 21, 2008 - 10:34:00 AM
Angel Estes offers advice to a patron at the Tool Lending Library in South Berkeley.
Adam Broner
Angel Estes offers advice to a patron at the Tool Lending Library in South Berkeley.

By Adam Broner 

Special to the Planet 


Newcomers to Berkeley often find the Tool Lending Library an unlikely institution, but its regulars browse its bins with nonchalance. “Hey, all your shovels are rounded. How am I gonna dig with this thing? You got any more hoes?” 

“Try a pick or digging bar,” I offer. 

He presents his library card and reads off the four-digit number carved into the handles of a well-worn shovel and hoe, spurning heavier tools. “See you in a week,” I say, handing him his card and the computer receipt. 

Angel is helping the next patron, who trades his card for a right-angle drill and a long self-feeding ship auger bit. The line continues into the afternoon, tools streaming in and out of the over-packed addition to the South Branch of the Berkeley Public Library. 

For over 28 years the residents of Berkeley have been able to borrow construction and gardening tools through Berkeley’s library system. Pete McElligott began this project with federal CDBG funds, and the collection has gradually come to overflow its original portable building. It now fills the nooks and crannies of its present building and shed with wheelbarrows, demohammers, pipe stands, power snakes, pole saws, pruners, and lots of garden tools. 

Drills, rotohammers, sawzalls and skilsaws are on shelves next to the counter where they are easy to reach. Last month the Tool Library loaned out more than 4,000 tools and signed up more than 100 new patrons. Four part-time employees keep it open Tuesdays through Saturdays. 

Today is a typical Tuesday, busy with returns from the weekend. Lisa returns a reciprocating saw and minigrinder and tells me to check out her wheels. In our small and busy lot stands a diesel BMW that she has converted to run on vegetable oil. “Look who’s driving,” she says. There is a sun visor covering the windshield depicting Elvis at the wheel with his hound beside him. “The King is in the house.” She has been using our tools for home projects, and is now branching out to alternative fuels. 

Elvis, a lover of deep-fry, is the perfect mascot. We laugh. “Elvis is in the house,” she proclaims to a line of patient patrons. A new patron smiles uncertainly, as if to say, “For this I need a library card?” 

David, a long-time patron and law enforcement instructor, borrows a wheelbarrow and cement mixer. Robert and Jason show him how to tilt it up on to its stand, then take it down and help load it in his station wagon. Today he will pour his first concrete steps. 

Ed returns a weedeater and shares his latest conspiracy theory. 

Robin, spattered with joint compound, is just back from a five-day chocolate convention in Belgium. “I’ll keep doing drywall until I get my own pastry shop,” he says. 

Austin tries to teach Jason an Irish accent. 

And Meghan walks in with a vase of trumpetvine, sets it on the counter, smiles, and walks back out without a word. 

A normal day at the Tool Library. 


Adam Broner has worked for the Tool Lending Library for the last 16 years. Prior to that he was a construction foreman. 





1901 Russell St. (at Martin Luther King, Jr. Way). 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays; noon-7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 1-5:30 p.m. Fridays; 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturdays. 981-6101. New patrons need ID and a recent bill as proof of address in Berkeley.