Getting hammered in North Portland

The tool library nails an urban need.
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Nothing by Kurt Vonnegut at the North Portland Tool Library.

The tool library nails an urban need.

It hasn't been a great year for libraries in Oregon, what with branches closing down right and left in rural counties while a few rounds of Find-the-Money drag on in the nation's capitol. The news, fortunately, is not all bad. While the dice are thrown in D.C. and parents worry about whether Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five is suitable reading, it's business as usual at the North Portland Tool Library. Roto-tillers, pneumatic nail guns, and crowbars quietly go out and in and out again each Saturday morning and Tuesday evening, whether other libraries are open or not. NPTL, as it is unbecomingly abbreviated, was founded in 2004 by Matt Moritz, Laura Dalton, Jason Henshaw, and Jason Hatch. Henshaw says the inspiration came from Berkeley, Calif.'s well-established tool-lending library and the founders' realization that many of their neighbors who needed rakes, shovels, power saws, even hammers, owned none of those things. There are no membership fees or charges for using NPTL. Unlike Berkeley's, NoPo's tool library isn't part of a traditional library system. It seeks its own grants and donations. The founders buy garden, bike-repair, and contractor-grade construction tools and twice a week open the door to a cool stone cellar in the former fire station at 2209 N. Schofield St. Staffers Adrian Haley and Bob New sign up newcomers, corral volunteers, track the whereabouts of some 500 tools, and politely answer questions that one might not be comfortable asking at Home Depot. Worried looking young woman: "Will this hand mower work as well as the gas one?" Helpful staffer, after a thoughtful pause: "Well, that depends a lot on you." The most common inquiry, contrary to what you might think, is not, "Why are there six screws left over after I put my new entertainment center together?" but, "Can I borrow tools here if I live outside North Portland?" The answer to that is a sympathetic no. Under the umbrella of a community-development program called North Portland Neighborhood Services, NPTL is just what the name implies. The founders and staff stand ready to advise anyone with a mind to open up a branch. Betting types figure the adjacent Northeast Portland neighborhood is the most likely place for expansion, with tell-tale gentrification signs of trash bins overflowing with old insulation and nearly constant sounds of new roof shingles being nailed into place. There are 1,200 or so members of the tool library, says Henshaw, with slightly more women than men checking out goods. The diverse pool of NPTL users – all ages, all colors, all levels of familiarity with grades of sandpaper – reflects the neighborhood neatly. The beauty of all this is the minimal bureaucracy. Members join using a photo ID and something like a utility bill with a current address in the neighborhood. They sign a waiver agreeing, among other things, that NPTL is not liable if that gas mower does something unintended and bad. Again, there's no charge for using the library. Contingencies for hugely late returns and stolen tools exist, but so far there's not been any need to lower the hammer on anyone.


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