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When Chris and Heather Topham bought their first home in Graton two years ago, it was a big budgetary stretch, particularly with three kids.

But in their determination to become homeowners, there was one expense they didn?t anticipate ? the cost of home repairs.

?When you become a homeowner, you don?t always know about all the little costs that come up,? said Chris, a teacher at Summerfield Waldorf School in Santa Rosa. ?I didn?t factor in any money for tools.?

So on a sunny summer day, Topham knocked on the door of Dustin Zuckerman and asked to borrow a hedge trimmer. Wandering to a back closet of his small, one-bedroom fourplex carved into an old carriage house near Santa Rosa Junior College, Zuckerman rooted around and pulled out the tool.

It wasn?t quite a neighbor-to-neighbor exchange. The two men live in different towns. But since April, Zuckerman has been helping fellow Sonoma County do-it-yourselfers with his fledgling tool lending library.

The shoestring operation at the moment is a one-man show. Everything inside his apartment is tidy. Yet neatly concealed in every conceivable spot are buckets of tools ? more than 200 of them. And the stockpile is growing, thanks to donations and new purchases.

Zuckerman pledged his own $300 economic stimulus check and his $800 tax refund this year to buying tools to build up his inventory. And his brothers, who run the family pawn shop business in Long Beach, have generously allowed him to raid the store.

?I don?t have kids. I don?t have debt, and I don?t have habits that make me spend my money. Maybe I?m just a do-gooder,? he said, struggling to explain what would motivate a single renter to turn over his apartment, money and time to make home maintenance and improvement easier for his fellow man.

But part of it is concern over lost community, he added, and the days when people knew their neighbors well enough to walk down the block and ask for a favor, for advice or for a helping hand on a project.

The idea of community sharing of resources has long appealed to the library technician, who oversees the periodicals section at Santa Rosa Junior College?s Doyle Library.

?It?s such a common-sense idea,? he maintains.

Stashed away in his apartment are kits for changing oil, painting, patching drywall and doing basic electrical work. In addition to gardening tools (pruning shears to chain saw pole pruners), he has tools to help do-it-yourselfers with carpentry, concrete and masonry, drafting and measuring, plumbing, laying carpet and more. His power tools (all electric, no gas) run the gamut from circular saws and sanders to drills and routers.

Zuckerman gives every borrower a basic tutorial. If he thinks they don?t understand it well enough, he won?t let them take a tool. Safety first, he says.

The concept of community tool sharing is not new. Berkeley has loaned tools under the aegis of its public library since 1979. It was set up partly as a way to aid with urban renewal, using funds from a Community Development Block Grant.

But Jason Armstrong, one of four tool specialists with the Berkeley library, said while a couple of dozen other tool libraries have cropped up across the country and in Canada and Australia, they?re still rare because grant funding is now harder to come by. San Francisco?s tool library, run by the nonprofit San Francisco Clean City Coalition, closed 18 months ago after its grant funding ran out. Berkeley?s survives because voters in 1988 passed a property-based library tax, which also supports the tool library.

Berkeley?s operation has grown to include some 7,000 tools of the highest quality the library can afford. Armstrong said about 12,000 patrons use the service, checking out tools, much like books, with their regular library card. And like books, there are late fees of $5 to $15 a day depending on the tool. The $15,000 collected annually in overdue fines is used to repair old tools and buy new ones.

The city of Oakland also has a tool lending library at the Temescal Branch. Originally created as a resource to help residents rebuild or repair after the 1991 Oakland hills firestorm, it became a community tool library in 2000. Services now include classes and workshops on everything from plumbing repairs to power tool safety.

Lindsey Lee Keel, who is helping Zuckerman build up support and energy around his project, said volunteers have stepped forward to help with grant writing. Others have donated tools or expressed interest in contributing seed money. She said she would eventually like to see it grow into a community center with its own storefront ? a place where people can learn skills and share ideas.

In the meantime, Zuckerman, who has made more than 50 loans out of his home-based library since he opened shop in April, is taking steps to gain legal nonprofit status and has given himself until October to see how much support is out there before setting up a steering committee and actively going after funding and a permanent home.

He spreads the words via online community bulletin boards and the old-fashioned way ? homemade fliers dropped around the neighborhood.

Right now the operation remains informal. Any resident of Sonoma County over 18 can borrow tools with a current photo ID and a utility bill bearing the same address. To reserve and pick up a tool, people call him or e-mail (576-0590 or use the reservation form at borrowtools.org.).

His two most popular tools are the power washer and rototiller. Since the service is free, that means real savings. The Rental Place, with shops in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa, charges $60 a day for a power washer; $55 for a small rototiller.

Zuckerman lets people keep a tool 3 to 7 days, depending on whether anyone else is waiting. Although some tool libraries charge a membership fee, he wants his to be free.

?You know in this housing market, we?re pretty tight on money,? said Chris Topham, after borrowing the hedge trimmer and a tamper to lay a pathway.

He had been looking on community posts for used tools before someone alerted him to Zuckerman?s Web site. It would have cost $24 a day to rent a hedge trimmer from Home Depot.

?With food prices going up and gas prices going up and our mortgage increased, we try to hold off on repairs. And landscaping comes pretty far down the list,? a grateful Topham said. ?But if the tools are free? Sure. I?ve got the time to do it.?