Behind a blue gate and up a loading dock on the South Side, there’s a small library.
It has no books. Instead, there are shelves and shelves of tools: Saws, sewing machines., laminators. Even ice-cream makers.
The sign at the entrance reads “Chicago Tool Library.”
It’s a place where Chicagoans can borrow tools for all sorts of projects or jobs rather than having to buy them, said Tessa Vierk, co-founder and executive director.
The nonprofit launched in August 2019 and, in just under three years, has grown from 160 to almost 3,000 members. People come from across the city, representing about 98% of Chicago’s ZIP codes, Vierk said.
“We have school teachers planting gardens for their classes,” Vierk said. “We have several small businesses that use our tools to do renovations or to do landscaping outside of their restaurant or their shop. We have people who use our tools to make money, to complete odd jobs.”
During the pandemic, people have borrowed pasta makers and ice-cream makers for their families, Vierk said. They borrowed telescopes for their kids and built custom, at-home desks, she said.
Soon, the library will grow even bigger. This fall, it will acquire all of the tools and equipment of Chicago Community Tools, a similar nonprofit that was in operation since 2012. That will mean taking on over 5,000 more tools and some larger ones. While the Chicago Tool Library primarily serves individuals, Chicago Community Tools serves groups like nonprofits and schools, so it lends tools like generators.
Vierk said the Tool Library is scouring the South Side for a much larger space.
It’s the “best partnership I could ever imagine,” Community Tools president Tim Kaczocha said.
Kaczocha, who is looking to retire, has watched the Tool Library grow rapidly over the past few years and said he knew it would be a good fit. Community Tools will end its lending services at the end of October, he said.
There is an annual “pay what you can” membership fee to join. One person might pay $5 and another $350. It evens out, Vierk said. And there are no late fees, Vierk said, to avoid financial barriers people otherwise might face when renting tools.
To Vierk, starting a tool library felt like common sense. It’s something any community would benefit from, she said.
“I think it’s really important for communities to have access to the tools, literally and figuratively, to take care of themselves,” Vierk said. “I think that you should be able to take care of your home and garden without owning all of those tools, I think you should be able to learn new skills without having to be able to take expensive classes.”
A research article published by San Jose State University identified at least 50 tool lending libraries nationwide. The website localtools.org shows tool libraries in Bloomington and Carbondale.
Vierk met her co-founder Jim Benton in January 2019 while researching a tool library. By spring, they’d found a space. And they soon got volunteers and tool donations.
“The tools were the easiest thing to come by,” Vierk said. “So many people, especially in the suburbs, have more tools than they need, and they are eager as they downsize or retire or move, to make sure that their precious things have meaning somewhere else.”
But Vierk hopes people think about the Chicago Tool Library as more than just its tools. It’s also about community; it’s about equity and self-sufficiency, she said.
“We’ll always have more tools, we’ll always have better tools, we’ll always grow, but I want people to think about what a generous community space like this can really mean for all kinds of people,” Vierk said.
Senior librarian Shelby Mongan said the library’s mission and sense of community is what many members fall in love with.
She recalled a group of four who came to pick up a tool earlier this year. They ended up staying in the library for awhile talking with volunteers and others about projects they were working on.
“It went from this transactional, consumerist idea of like, ‘I’m going to rent this thing from you and exchange currency for it,’ and it turned into this wonderful long conversation,” Mongan said. “We saw them for many weeks afterwards. They told their friends about it, and it was really that human touch, that extra bit of sharing economy” that made the difference.
Another member was rehabbing a bus in 2021 and turning it into a mobile community center, Mongan said.
“Not only are members like her able to get access to the tools that she needs to work on things, but we talked to her, we got excited, we were able to promote some of the stuff that she was doing.”