‘What exactly is a Tool Library?” I asked Chris Hellawell, founder of the Edinburgh Tool Library in Leith.
“Well, it’s just like a normal library. You become a member but instead of borrowing books, you borrow tools.”
It’s a beautifully simple idea. But it begs the question, why was the concept so difficult to understand when Chris was pitching it to the organisation who had to decide whether they would give him charitable status or not?
“I had to keep explaining it to them”, says Chris. “Each time I did, they said, ‘Well it sounds just like tool hire to me.’ In the end I said to them will you please stop saying ‘hire’! Have you ever ‘hired’ a book from a library? They admitted they hadn’t. Well, that’s the difference. You borrow the tools from us, you don’t hire them.
“We needed charitable status so we could accept donations of tools. We got it. It was supposed to be a 27-day process but it actually took seven months. It’s only £20 a year to join, so now we have around 700 members. I’ve got 30 volunteers, two part-time staff and I work full-time.”
What was the first tool you loaned out?
Chris bursts out laughing. “There was a woman who’d been feeding her cat too much. Eventually it got so big that when it tried to get through the cat-flap it got stuck. So she asked us for a jigsaw and widened the cat-flap. Now her fat moggie can get in and out okay.”
What put the idea for a tool library into your head?
“I was visiting friends in Canada. I hadn’t figured out exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I’d worked in forestry. Then I’d taught outdoor activities to people with certain life challenges.
“One of my mates said I should check out the Toronto Tool Library, he thought I’d be interested. So I went along and asked if I could spend an afternoon with them to see how they operated.
“While I was there, a young guy came in. He was a roofer by trade but he was going through a rough patch. He’d no money and nowhere to live. He’d just been offered a job but he needed tools and he had literally no cash to buy any.
“The guy who ran the place said ‘What do you need?’ He said ‘I need a hammer, a Stanley knife and a tool belt, that’s it. Then I’m good to go.’ The boss said ‘Ok, we’ll make you a temporary member right now, you can pay us when you’re earning’.
“He gave this guy the hammer, the Stanley knife and the toolbelt. I was watching his expression. He was so grateful his eyes filled with tears. It was all he needed to turn his life around and someone had just given it to him without blinking or making him fill in any forms.”
What made you choose Leith?
“I’d worked in Glasgow and I’d lived on the other side of Edinburgh but I was tired of city life. I wanted something a bit removed from that.
“I saw an article in The Leither magazine about Monty Roy, the lady who owns the wacky police box on Leith Walk. There was enough room in there to store tools, so we started distributing tools from there. We did an event at The Science Festival and that helped to spread the word. Now we’ve got a big, airy workshop on Custom House Quay.
“I really love Leith. It’s a proper neighbourhood. I had to park my car round a corner just off the Walk the other day. Inside five minutes, the girls form the hairdresser’s next door had run across to me and warned me that the traffic warden was doing his rounds. That kind of thing makes you feel you’re part of a real community.”
How did you get hold of enough tools to lend out?
“We got lucky. We organized a tool amnesty and that encouraged people to give us their old tools. Somebody would say. ‘Oh, my grandad died the other day and we were cleaning out his shed, you can have all his tools’.
“Another guy called Patrick Filton, who was a bespoke treehouse-builder, suddenly decided he was moving to California. There was no point in him lugging all his tools over to the West Coast when he could buy new ones there, so he gave them all to us and that meant we pretty much had one of everything.”
It’s not just a place to get tools though, is it?
“No, it’s like the Greek concept of a library, it’s a place of learning that has benefits for the whole community.
“Sixty per cent of our members come from low-income households. If you can’t afford to pay the £20 it costs for a year’s membership, we just ask you to pay what you can afford.
“We run workshops so you can come to us with just a rough sketch of what you want to make and we’ll show you how to produce it to a professional level.
“People want to make all sorts of things. Somebody made a Star Wars light sabre. One guy made a painter’s easel. Somebody else made a surfboard rack.
“Leith’s a really multi-ethnic community and the tool library is a great place to get people integrated. A group of Syrian refugees came to us – they wanted to learn English.
“We deliberately broke their group up so they were working with a lot of different nationalities – one day there was a group with three Syrians, an Italian, a Spaniard and two Leithers!
“One of our Syrian guys makes things that you’ve no idea what they’re going to be until they’re finished. His wife’s really small and all the kitchen surfaces in their hosue are too high for her, so he’s built her a special chopping platform so she can chop vegetables while she’s sitting cross-legged on the floor.
“He’s made a set of nunchucks for his son. Now I think he’s building a hatstand.”
It sounds like there are a lot of benefits for the community in what you’re doing.
“That’s true. For example, there are loads of shops in Leith that don’t have any disabled or pushchair access so we’ve been building ramps for them.
“At first they were saying, ‘Well, I don’t need a ramp because I don’t have any wheelchair or pushchair customers. We had to point out very gently to them that maybe it was the other way round - they don’t have those kinds of customers because they don’t provide any ramp access!”
You’ve achieved a lot in a short space of time. What ambitions do you still have?
“I’d like to see a tool library in every town in Scotland. I think the need’s there and the benefits to the community are clear. We all need to start developing a sharing economy. We don’t need to keep buying new stuff when we could be re-using the stuff we’ve got.
“Tool libraries are a way of bringing people together, sharing the softer things like skills, stories, experiences and cups of tea. Everyone’s living in their own little Facebook bubble these days. The world needs more face-to-face interaction. That’s what we offer at the Edinburgh Tool Library.”