On one of the city’s hottest days this year, Rachelle Faroul and Hanako Franz quibbled in an unair-conditioned warehouse in West Philadelphia about an unlikely subject: a glitter popcorn ceiling.
The pair had just purchased a home in the Cedar Park section of Philadelphia, and they were taking stock of needed renovations.
“I think we’ll start with the floors,” declared Faroul, 32, an administrator at the University of Pennsylvania. And the walls, Franz, 31, a high school teacher, chimed in.
“Oh yeah, there’s a popcorn ceiling — glitter popcorn,” Faroul grumbled, exchanging a glance with Franz.
“I don’t think it’s that bad!” Franz countered, laughing. “We’re undecided about the popcorn ceiling,” she continued, much to Faroul’s displeasure.
Removal of the popcorn ceiling or not, one thing was clear: Faroul and Franz had a lot of work cut out for them.
Luckily, they had come to the right place: the West Philadelphia Tool Library.
Standing at just 1,000 square feet on a predominantly residential street, the tool library, with an exterior of gray concrete, could easily be overlooked. The only identifier of what’s inside is a small sign above the door and a sandwich board featuring a painting of a bright yellow hammer.
But for determined home improvers, the unassuming facade is no deterrent. Within minutes of opening its doors at 5:30 p.m. on a Thursday earlier this month, the West Philadelphia Tool Library was crowded with patrons searching for the tools they needed.
Situated at 1314 S. 47th St., just blocks from the University of the Sciences, the tool library works like any traditional library for books. Shelves line the warehouse, brimming with saws, wheelbarrows and power drills ready for checkout. Some tools are bulky, some tiny, and some hang high on the walls. A handful are new, sleek, top-of-the-line products, gleaming just slightly brighter than the worn tools — mostly collected through donations. Some, such as fruit pickers, are whimsical. Others are relics from decades past — reel lawn mowers, for example, a item still popular among patrons.
The library’s more than 4,000 tools are organized systematically for its members, who pay a small, annual fee based on a sliding scale. For those who make less than $25,000 a year, a membership costs $20 for unlimited tool checkout, which is in one-week increments. Between $25,000 and $50,000? $30 annually. The scale ends at $50 for those in the $75,000 income bracket. (Lifetime memberships cost a onetime $250 fee.)
About 630 Pennsylvania and New Jersey residents are enrolled — from different backgrounds and with different needs. There’s the West Philadelphia community gardener, who stopped in on that Thursday night to say hello to the library staff while searching for landscaping equipment. Andres Recalde, 24, came by for the first time with his friend Ryan, having joined the library only two days prior to find tools for his first big project: framing a door in his new house in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood. And 33-year-old Brian Kwon, a student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, dropped off a heavy bag of tools he used for a gutting and renovation project at his newly purchased Center City condominium.
“I didn’t think it would go this far,” Kwon said, laughing, his voice slightly tinged with regret as he walked around the library, picking up more tools to check out. “It started with, ‘Sure, let’s change the vanity mirror and maybe the bathtub.’ Now we’re doing the kitchen, the bathroom … we’re painting.”
With no clear history of when tool libraries started, advocates associated with them say the first “official” library may have been launched as early as the 1970s. The idea has swelled to as many as 100 locations across North America, according to some estimates, with many concentrated in Canada and along the West Coast. The idea has become so prevalent that, this year, tool library representatives from across the continent gathered in Toronto for the second annual Lending Library Symposium to swap ideas.
In the region, a tool library opened in 2015 in Gloucester Township, Camden County, managed by the Office of Sustainability and Shared Services. Also nearby, Baltimore has one, too.
The location in West Philadelphia has long been a community staple: Since it was started nearly 10 years ago, more than 2,500 people have been members, borrowing 58,000 tools, in total. More than 10,000 tools were checked out last year.
In Philadelphia, founding members believed, the concept was particularly vital: At least half of the city’s housing stock is estimated to be more than 60 years old, meaning that many houses are in need of both major and minor repairs. And in today’s robust market, in which homes are flying off the market, more home owners are seeking ways to add value to their homes.
But when just one power drill can cost as much as $150 and a simple hammer as much as $20, paying for renovation materials — plus the tools — can break a budget. Even renting from big-box stores such as Home Depot can cost hundreds of dollars a month, according to the company’s website, depending on the size and scope of the tool.
“This has probably saved me hundreds of dollars,” said Dan Driskell, 41, of Bella Vista, who stopped in the tool library last week with his 8-year-old daughter, Stella. “It’s a lot cheaper, and it’s close.”
Julie Shimborski, 36, took over as the interim executive director of the West Philadelphia library — which is sponsored by the Urban Affairs Coalition — about two months ago, steering the nonprofit’s $26,000 annual budget largely comprised of membership dues and late fees ($1 a tool a day). In the short time since, she’s made big plans for the library’s future. One of them: expanding to the currently unrented space next door to host programs for members on how to do everything from building a raised garden bed to repairing broken windows.
“It’s important to be able to teach all individuals throughout West Philly and Philly at large how to use a tool properly, how to fix a home, how to put up dry wall, how to fix a front door,” Shimborski said. “From the smallest to the big things.”
Even more, Shimborski is trying to build a large multilingual library of instructional books for renovations, to be located at the library’s current location. She also would like to partner with more nonprofits and educational programs, she said, to help with community cleanups and to lend tools for their projects.
“Every time I’m in the tool library, there are usually three or four other people here,” said James Jackson, a member who is a freelance artist and set-builder for theater companies. “That’s the cool thing about the library — we can help each other figure out projects.”