The small but powerful lending library is already expanding to tackle bigger issues its members face, like job training and transit access.
By Sara Aldridge, Detour Detroit Emerging Voice Fellow
At first glance, an unassuming red garage on East Warren Avenue in Detroit might seem like it fits in with the vacant storefronts that pepper the commercial strip. However, when the door rolls up, visitors will find the new E. Warren Tool Library, where volunteers might be loaning out tools, organizing donated equipment or chatting about renovation plans with residents.
Since opening in July, the library has given Detroiters across the city the means to put in sweat equity to improve their neighborhoods, without having to go broke doing it. And they’re already expanding, branching out into education and finding ways to bring tools to people who can’t get to their site.
Motor City Grounds Crew, a group that got its start mowing parks and other neglected public spaces, launched the tool library in July in the MorningSide neighborhood. Like a regular library with a small fee, residents and organizations that join the EWTL can stop by four days a week and checkout supplies they need from a collection of 1,100 tools that includes hammers, drills, levels, power sanders, mowers and post hole diggers. They also provide some free lumber and construction materials. The library’s membership fees are set based on income, so someone making $25,000 or less only pays $25 annually.
A simple idea — rooted in serious problems
Households spent an average of $7,500 on home renovations and repairs in 2018, according to a survey of 1,488 homeowners conducted by home improvement hiring site HomeAdvisor. In Detroit, where the median household income is $26,249 and more than a third of residents live below the poverty line, purchasing expensive tools to help maintain or renovate homes may be impossible. At the EWTL, members can check out any items from the library for four days, and late fees are minimal.
The majority of the library’s tools were donated, said Joshua Arnston, the library’s only full-time staffer.
With over 90 members already, Arnston said, “We serve everyone. Black, white, middle-class, low-income. It’s really for everyone.”
While the EWTL brings a new service to Detroit, tool lending libraries began to surface in the U.S. in the late 1970s, starting in Berkeley, Calif.. Through the years, advocates have championed their ability to strengthen community sustainability by lowering economic barriers to home improvement, reducing consumption and allowing for home energy efficiency upgrades.
Building out the library’s mission
As part of their goal to serve everyone, EWTL organizers realized they needed to tackle a citywide problem — lack of access to reliable transportation makes it difficult for people to get to the library during their somewhat limited hours. To help meet those residents’ needs, the tool library will launch mobile tool pop-ups this fall to help homeowners prepare for the winter months. These pop-ups will also be free for non-members.
“The idea is to take a trailer full of tools to communities around the library, where people can borrow tools while the pop-up is going on,” Arnston said.
EWTL partners with block clubs that pay $100 and nonprofits that pay $250 to join, as well as individual residents. Though the organization NW Goldberg Cares is miles away in northwest Detroit, founder Daniel Washington sought out Arnston and the EWTL to support projects like building a community garden.
“Living in a rather disinvested neighborhood in Detroit, we struggle at times for access to what others would call a standard quality of life,” Washington said. “The E. Warren Tool Library has provided us with the peace of mind to know tools are accessible and conveniently located when we take on a new project.”
EWTL plans to diversify their services to include workshops and classes in upcoming months, said Joe Rashid, a tool librarian volunteer and executive director of the E. Warren Development Co.
“We really want it to be up to the neighbors on how we activate the space, to be sure we are giving them the tools and skills that they really have a need for,” Rashid added.
The library continues to build relationships with other organizations, including MECCA Development Corp. Since forming five years ago, MECCA has worked to empower local residents and businesses to revitalize the city’s far east side communities. They’ve partnered with EWTL to host job training workshops at the library that give residents an introduction to skills like weatherization and plumbing.
Latisha Johnson, MECCA’s founder, said using the library’s space and tools has let the organization expand its capacity.
“When I purchased my house 14 years ago, I lived at Home Depot,” Johnson laughed. “But there are a lot of residents that can’t get to the resources they may need to in order to rehab their homes. Partnering with the tool library makes it so much more attainable and makes what MECCA does that much more feasible.”
EWTL is funded by a grant from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and is run as a social enterprise, a business model that puts the interests of people and planet before shareholder gain. (Editor’s note: CFSEM is also a funder of Detour.)
How to help
A handful of residents currently donate their time to keep the library operating, but EWTL is looking to grow its dedicated volunteer base. As Arnston summed it up when talking about the importance of their volunteers: “We can’t do it alone.”
If you are interested in volunteering or learning more about the East Warren Tool Library, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sara Aldridge is a fellow in the inaugural cohort of Detour Detroit’s Emerging Voices program, designed to tell the story of Detroit’s present and future in the voice of its residents. Living in Detroit for almost four decades, Sara has been a continual ambassador for the city and the arts and culture scene. She currently works for the College for Creative Studies and DJs as one half of the duo Nothing Elegant. She recently bought a home in East English Village with her husband. As a Detour fellow, Sara planned to write about the vast diversity she sees in her neighborhood. A conversation with neighbor Joe Rashid sparked the idea to focus her first story on the tool library, which, through its mission and membership, illustrates the diversity she hoped to highlight. Follow her on Instagram.
Detour’s Emerging Voices fellowship program was funded in January 2019 by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a partnership between the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan, the Ford Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.