How it all began….
First, a bit of background. Library of Things began as a fiendishly simple idea dreamt up by friends Bex, Emma and James in 2014 and run as a pilot project in West Norwood public library. Back then the items were loaned out free of charge, and the idea proved so popular, the team quickly realised they were onto a winner.
Fast forward several months, and Sophia took over from a busy James. Now permanently located in Vale Street, SE27, Bex tells Chris Twomey – a member of LOT’s lovely volunteer army – about the journey so far.
When did you get permission to set up shop at your current site at Vale Street, SE27?
In January 2016. After a fruitless 18-month search for an affordable space, we eventually spoke to Community Shop manager Clara. She said, “Library of Things complements what Community Shop does because it makes useful things accessible and our members can benefit from that.”
A month later we bought shipping containers and they arrived in the Community Shop car park, then we worked with a group of local people, including carpenters, who helped transform them into a beautiful space.
What made you think about buying shipping containers!?
Containers are increasingly being used as creative enterprise spaces, for example Pop Brixton – a small start-up community in central Brixton. It's a bit like Legoland, but made out of shipping containers.
The containers are now our miniature home, which can be transported to wherever we want them to go.
At the moment, we have two containers: one as our shop front, one as storage. But someday soon, these will be self-service and accessible around the clock – so any member can borrow anything at anytime!
What were the greatest difficulties and obstacles to getting this set up?
Practically, ordering hundreds of different types of pieces of wood, screws, glue, and peg board.
Our designer-carpenter friends advised us but Emma did all the ordering. She spent hours on the phone to people like Travis Perkins, and small tool and paint suppliers. I can’t tell you how many times I cycled across London carrying huge buckets of paint on my back!
Because you don’t drive…
But I’ve got my bike… One evening in July we stayed up through the night spray-painting the containers, turning ourselves slowly blue and purple, so that the containers would be ready for our launch party.
We came across some interesting attitudes whilst dealing with suppliers... Often delivery men would rock up and say, “we’ll sign this off with the guys,” looking towards our carpenter friends. We had to tell them that we women could order materials too – and were capable of signing for them ourselves thanks!
I can understand why that sort of reaction would bother you, but at the same time you were three young women with a bold vision, and I’m not sure that three boring-looking blokes could have motivated people in the same way.
Ha, ha! Perhaps that's true. We got lots of help and support and discounts and advice…and friendship, actually, in lots of different places. For instance, Big Yellow Storage in West Norwood gave us free storage for a year.
So you charmed them…that must have made you feel...empowered?
It makes me feel heartened that people are willing to be really generous because there’s a cause they believe in. Perhaps it is sometimes to do with who we are as well, and it’s hard to separate the two, but I think it’s a project that has come to be because of human generosity, and that makes me smile.
Was there ever a moment when you thought it wouldn’t come together?
When we were looking for a space there were definitely times I thought, “this is just impossible, maybe we should give up.” We spent so long trying to find somewhere affordable and either people would tell us, “that tumbledown room you just saw is £60,000 per year” or the council would say, “you’re welcome to have this space but you need to raise thousands of pounds to invest in it.”
The three of you knew this enterprise was barely going to break even at first and you need to earn a living, so what made you all want to pursue the idea of Library of Things?
Sophia always says “It’s a good idea, it should just exist” – and I think that is genuinely what drives us. Can you imagine if there was some kind of community borrowing space in every neighbourhood where people could come together and solve problems. Wouldn’t that make a huge difference to how we all lived?
I generally believe that if you create something of enough value, someone, somewhere will pay you to do that. Now it's just a question of us working out who.