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Bay Area tool-lending libraries help you make home improvements.

By Beth Kohn

ATTENTION, INDUSTRIAL artists and weekend home-improvement warriors: You may find unexpected treasures at your local library.

Big projects can't go very far without access to the requisite tools, and unless you're a professional contractor, you probably don't want to drop hundreds of dollars on specialty tools, particularly for something you may only use once, like a snake to mend your gasping low-flow toilet after a heavy round of houseguests. At Bay Area tool-lending libraries, you can borrow all sorts of plumbing, painting, carpentry, and gardening equipment without paying a single penny. Besides renters and homeowners, about 30 percent of patrons are small-business entrepreneurs who rely on the tools for their day-to-day work needs.

Checking out tools is a friendly experience for everyone, from professionals to neophytes, and the staff will recommend the best tool for the job, as long as they're not swamped. Anyone with a photo ID and proof of city residency (such as a utility bill) can sign up for tool-borrowing privileges and then start browsing through rows of wrenches.

Berkeley and Oakland have made tool-lending services available through their public library systems. In 1979 the Berkeley Public Library started the Berkeley Tool-Lending Library (1901 Russell, Berk. 510-981-6101, www.berkeleypubliclibrary.org/tool), the first of its kind in the Bay Area, with a grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The program still functions as part of the public library and continues to maintain personal relationships with the people borrowing its cement mixers and Sawzalls, even with an estimated checkout rate of 6,000 tools a month. "[It's] different than when someone checks out a book," tool-lending specialist Adam Broner says. "Someone's drain is clogged, or they need to do something before their mother comes to visit. Each tool has a story behind it."

The Berkeley library has served as an example for fledgling tool-lending libraries in other towns. Broner trained a colleague to establish a library in Portland, Ore., and at the invitation of the Berkeley Rotary Club, he gathered a collection of donated tools and set up a library in the small town of Chacala, Mexico.

Also, with the help of the Berkeley library, Oakland's Temescal Tool-Lending Library (5205 Telegraph, Oakl. 510-597-5089, www.oaklandlibrary.org/Branches/temtll.htm) opened its doors in 2000, 10 years after it first identified the need to address local demand for repairs and retrofits in the wake of the 1989 quake and 1991 Oakland fire. Nearly identical to Berkeley's program, the facility also serves Emeryville and Piedmont residents, and there's often a line of patrons clamoring to get in.

Besides its stock of wet-tile saws and a stable of weed-eaters, the key to the Oakland library's success, according to tool-lending specialist Ty Yurgelevic, is its customers' shared philosophy. "People like coming here because they feel a sense of community. They bring tools back early because they know someone might be waiting for them."

San Francisco is home to the newest Bay Area tool library, but it's set up a bit differently. The San Francisco Clean City Coalition, a neighborhood beautification nonprofit, resuscitated the San Francisco Tool-Lending Center (1016 Howard, SF. 415-701-TOOL, www.sfcleancity.com/tool-lending) after it was shuttered, in 2003, by its founders, the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, who ran it for the city. Although the program still receives some funding from the San Francisco Public Library, it is no longer a city program. Consequently, the city no longer shoulders the insurance costs of letting people use potentially dangerous equipment and premium estimates were too high for the nonprofit to afford on its own. The San Francisco Tool-Lending Library only lends manually powered tools and now focuses on the "cleaning and greening of San Francisco" and free educational workshops, executive director Gia Grant says. The primary tool-borrowers are gardeners and groups doing community cleanups.

The center's move from the Portola neighborhood to SoMa, in November 2004, has caused patron demographics to shift. Outreach coordinator Tim Dewey-Matti sees lenders from the old spot filtering back in, in addition to new users: "It used to be that patrons mostly came from three zip codes in the southeast sector of the city. We get people from more downtown neighborhoods like SoMa and the Tenderloin now, as well as downtown workers and people without cars." He cites as an example a single-room-occupancy hotel resident, who used one of the center's dollies to help him move. "He needed about 20 trips, but he did it."

Beth Kohn is a freelance writer who lives in San Francisco, and reasonably handy to boot. You can reach her at fiercesf(at)igc.org.