At 6:55 on a Friday evening, a man walks into the Takoma Park Tool Library, looking for a pole saw. The librarian, Walt Rave, 58, looks up from his seat, a broken office chair propped up on cinder blocks. He takes the patron’s driver’s license, copies information onto a form, and then walks to a door that leads to the collection. He opens it just far enough to slip inoffering only a sliver of a view of hammers and screwdrivers beyondand to slip out again with the needed saw.
The Tool Library, the progressive Takoma Park community’s answer to Home Depot, is housed in a periwinkle blue trailer at the back of a huge site at the intersection of Philadelphia and Maple Avenues. It shares the lot with the regular library, as well as the municipal building and police station. Since 1979, city residents have been borrowing tools for free; Rave, a well-known figure in Takoma Park, has been serving them for the past 15 years.
Though Rave keeps his office area neat, the trailer is cramped and dilapidated. He blames the city for the shortcomings. “The trailer is falling apart,” Rave says. “The roof leaked; I fixed that. They treat the Tool Library like an orphan. It’s like a plant. They don’t give it any water, but they’re scratching their heads, saying, ‘Why is it dying?’”
Earlier this year, the Takoma Park City Council recommended cutting off support for the library entirely, eliminating its $12,800 annual cost from the fiscal 2004 budget. The council cited low usage, lack of funds, and the fact that the space is needed for construction of a municipal-building addition this summer.
Sara Daines, director of the city’s Department of Economic and Community Development, which oversees the library, says the program is “a nifty service,” but adds that maintaining it “ends up being expensive when you look at the actual number of people who use it.”
The library stocks a wide variety of manual equipment, including ladders, push mowers, and post-hole diggers, and a limited selection of power tools. It is open for four-hour periods on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The weekdays can be slow, Rave allows. But he insists that the demand is there for his services. “People come here,” he says, gesturing toward stacks of tool-rental forms. “I have tickets that show people come here. But they don’t come when the powers that be drive around that corner. They see me sitting here, reading, whatever, but they’re not here when that guy is here.”
Rave says he wasn’t very interested in the Tool Library back when the previous tool librarian died. “I figured I’d throw my name into the hat and see what happened,” he says. But as the hiring process went on, Rave found himself desperately wanting the gig, even going so far as to bring in tools he’d invented, including a homemade adjustable wrench, to back up his application. “They dragged it out, so then my interest was piqued,” Rave says. “It’s like a girl who acts like I can’t have herthat’s when I want her.”
Takoma Park residents seem likewise motivated by the fear of losing out. Richard Margoluis, who moved to the area in January, discovered the library and Rave by chance on a trip to what Rave calls “the book library.” After hearing that it might close, Margoluis rallied other citizens and put together a 325-signature petition urging the council to save it.
The community is buzzing with recommendations to save the program, including moving it to a more permanent location, running it as a co-op, or charging a fee for its services, but Margoluis says that, at this stage, residents just want to make sure the library will remainregardless of form. “We’re trying to gauge the amount of outcry from the community,” says Margoluis. “This is one of these issues that seems to be important to people.”
To measure actual tool usage, Daines’ office asked Rave to turn in receipts from borrowers. Because he’d never been asked for his records, Rave was in the habit of throwing loan slips away unless someone failed to return a tool. “One year, he burned some in his wood stove to keep warm,” Margoluis says, “but he never purposely got rid of themhe does a good job keeping records.”
“When this discussion came up, we asked Walt to pull together slips,” says Daines. “Those he submitted to the office for calculation weren’t all he had, but that’s been taken care of now.”
According to Davis, in the period from April 12 to May 13, 29 people used the library, checking out a total of 41 tools. She calculates the cost of that service at $45.29 per person, or $32.03 per tool.
With the adjusted usage figures in hand, the council set out to decide the fate of the service at a May 19 work session. After hearing Margoluis speak, members expressed interest in preserving the library, if it could be done at a different location and at a lesser cost to the city. In the end, they decided to allow the library to move to the city’s public-works facility when construction begins and to keep funding it through Jan. 1, 2004, while a community group looks for long-term solutions.
The librarian’s fate is less certain. Some council members argued that Rave is an attraction for residents, while others maintain that his animal-rights activismwhich includes walking around town with a fox pelt in a trap to bring attention to the plight of abused animalskeeps people away from the library.
Rave says he is let down by the council’s decision to move the Tool Library to what he calls a “back-street” location, and says that, regardless of the final outcome, he may leave at the end of the six-month reprieve. “I’m disappointed, but I’ll ride it out,” he says. “Whether it goes or not, I’m sick of it. I’m satiatedI’ve had enough and I’m satisfied.” CP