John Shea points out a toothy two-man saw hanging on the wall, amid an array of other intriguing vintage equipment (including one mysterious piece that he suspects rigs to a cow).
“Someone called in,” explains the easygoing 33-year-old artist, who co-founded the Station North Tool Library with his photographer girlfriend, Piper Watson, last year. “‘I’ve got some tools to donate; they’re really antiques,’ the man said. And it turns out they’re a couple hundred years old. We cleaned them up and hung them like they would at Cracker Barrel. Then someone came in and said, ‘I’m gonna need that.’ We put a number on it and rented it out to him.”
While the quirky equipment anecdote’s not the norm for Station North Tool Library—a nonprofit lending organization that’s already logged close to 2,500 rentals to 396 members in its first year—the exchange does illustrate an openness that Shea and Watson strive to embody. Members pay a suggested 0.1 percent of their annual income in exchange for complete access to the library for one year. If a tool they’re seeking is out on rental, they get wait-listed lickety-split. And if they don’t know how to use the tool they’re looking for, Shea, Watson or volunteer Natalia Eacchus will help them find an instructional video on YouTube.
“We try to make the space as friendly as possible,” Shea says. “It’s not like going into a Home Depot that barks information at you. The way we see it: The library belongs to everyone; it’s a service.”
Before the library launched along Oliver Street in the Greenmount West neighborhood—part of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District—Watson, 34, and Shea dreamed they would bring their tools to the people. Buy a van, fill it with handsaws, screwdrivers and the like, then tool around Baltimore—allowing patrons to rent items for little to no money.
The idea had been brewing in Shea while he worked as a studio tech at Towson University, maintaining equipment for the art department. Watson, whom he met in 2011 when the two resided in the City Arts building on Oliver Street, was meanwhile employed at VisionWorkshops’ Crossing Borders Program, an Annapolis organization that teaches refugees in Maryland to tell stories through photography. Shea thought there might be a way to blend that type of outreach with his love of working with his hands.
“How could we use tools and process and empowerment to show people how to work with their hands to control their environment?” says Shea. “In the end, we’re trying to help build a more self-reliant culture—to help beat planned obsolescence.”
The couple soon scrapped the concept of the traveling toolshed in favor of a bricks-and-mortar library, a model that has been in practice across the United States for at least four decades. In summer 2012, Shea quit his job. He and Watson took advantage of her wedding photography gig on the West Coast to visit several successful tool banks. The rest of the year they spent soliciting guidance and opinions from Station North residents, and gathering the tools.
About 80 percent are donated, Shea says, and they have a small budget to purchase bigger equipment, like dollies and ladders. Others—including an industrial-grade sander for finishing wooden floors—were purchased at a discount from a manufacturer who liked the concept and responded to one of Shea and Watson’s notoriously spirited emails.
Fiscal sponsorship from Fusion Partnerships on Guilford Avenue provides support. The Robert W. Deutsch Foundation and Gutierrez Memorial Fund help cover the insurance needed to operate a space that rents out tools quite capable of cropping fingers—no injuries have been reported—and a two-page tool use policy outlines the basic requirements for being a member. Watson sums it up succinctly: “Be cool. Don’t be a jerk.” (Evidently, jerks are rare. Only five of the library’s more than 1,000 tools haven’t been returned.)
The couple recently purchased a fixer-upper just north of Hampden. Watson estimates that they’ve saved roughly $17,000 borrowing tools from the library as opposed to renting them from a hardware store, something they hope will happen for lots more people in the neighborhood. If you have a black-and-blue thumb, don’t worry. The library offers classes on tool safety, furniture building and even making your own kitchen knives. 417 E. Oliver St., 410-347-0850, stationnorthtoollibrary.org