Meet Darren Cotton, Buffalo resident and President & Founder of The Tool Library. This library is an all-volunteer nonprofit tool-lending library located off of Main Street in Buffalo’s University Heights neighborhood. Cotton, now a young man in his 30s, was first struck by the need for such an organization while he was a graduate student at the University of Buffalo, pursuing his Master’s degree in Urban Planning.
“I experienced a landlord who was not the greatest at responding to issues, so my roommates and I started fixing things around the apartment with limited budget,” recalled Cotton. “This got me thinking about the need for a community-based resource where people could borrow the tools they needed to fix their own homes, grow their own food, and more. That was the genesis of The Tool Library.”
Cotton began researching the idea and found “a really wonderful community of people” who had already started tool libraries around the globe and who gave him a real sense of what a tool library would look like and how it would run. He began raising start-up funds, and in 2011, The Tool Library opened its doors for the first time under the umbrella of the University Heights Collaborative, becoming its own 501(c)3 in 2018.
“Our core mission has always been to remove the barriers of cost and space for people looking to repair something or complete a project, but a big part of what has really kept me going it that we are able to put a lot of these tools to work on projects in the Buffalo community such as community gardens, tree planting initiatives, and block club and organization projects,” explained Cotton.
The idea has caught on like wildfire with The Tool Library celebrating 10 years and 1,000 members last year. And Buffalo area communities are putting money behind their support. “Our goal was to raise $10,000 in the first 10 years; we have raised about $80,000,” shared Cotton. “We can help so many people in so many different ways.”
Along with lending tools (The nonprofit now boasts an inventory of about 4,200!), The Tool Library hosts programs throughout the year. One of its most popular programs is its monthly “Dare to Repair” campaign. “We have a team of volunteer fixers, and we invite people to bring in their broken items, work alongside one of our volunteers to fix it, and hopefully go home with a working item,” said Cotton. “We hope to shift our mentality towards repairing and reusing, limiting our impact, and helping things last as close to in perpetuity as possible.”
As for The Tool Library, it has already made an unmistakable impact. “Every year, we calculate every item that has been borrowed and the replacement cost for those items. We estimate we have saved members over $436,000. This is civic infrastructure everyone can use. In fact, equity is one of our driving values.”
For Cotton, the impact was also personal. “Now as a homeowner, I am incredibly grateful for what I have learned,” he said. “We are building a community of doers and tinkers, people who want to learn how to do things.
While The Tool Library has always been an all-volunteer organization, this year, to continue to serve a larger community of members, it is bringing on its first staff member: a part-time operations manager. Even so, Cotton said the nonprofit is always looking for volunteers to share a particular skill or lead a DIY workshop. “Knowledge and skills are important, just like the tools,” he said.
“We are part of a much larger movement to help people to realize that quality of life is not necessarily about buying more things but about being able to access the things you need when you need them,” said Cotton.
For Cotton, Buffalo is the perfect place to pursue his passion and share this movement. “Buffalo gives you the opportunity to contribute and make a difference as opposed to very large cities like LA, NYC, or Boston,” Cotton explained. “You are not just one person in a crowd in Buffalo. Here, you can afford to buy a home, start a business, explore a passion.”
Having grown up in Buffalo, Cotton has witnessed the change this kind of thinking can make firsthand. “The 2020 census shows that Buffalo is growing for the first time since 1950. The city that I knew as a kid is definitely not the city I know today, and that is because of individuals, nonprofits, and organizations staying here and fighting the good fight. It really shows what powerful things we can accomplish as a community.”