You might ask your neighbor if you can borrow a cup of sugar, but would you follow it up by asking them to hand over their KitchenAid stand mixer? That's essentially the concept behind a pair of new appliance lending libraries that have opened in Portland, Oregon, and Toronto.
One of the defining economic trends of the early 2010s has been the rise of "sharing"-based services. Companies like Airbnb, Snapgoods, RelayRides, and TaskRabbit ensure that regardless of whether you are in need of temporary accommodation, tools, vehicles, or even employees, there is someone out there willing to provide it.
But the truth is that most of these "share economy" startups are patterned after existing business models. Their versions simply sidestep expensive overhead—taxi cabs, hotel rooms, and labor—by using their workforce's own cars, homes, and skills. The companies are merely middlemen. Costs are lower and the service is more personalized, but is it really sharing?
Appliance lending libraries—like the tool lending libraries that preceded them—operate more like your local biblioteca than a traditional business. And they're exactly what they sound like: These non-profits provide small kitchen items to borrowers without the means or long-term need to purchase them. Devices like slow cookers, dehydrators, and canning equipment are available to anyone who's willing to pay a small fee to become a member.
First on the scene was Portland's Kitchen Share, which has two locations in the city. It opened its doors in mid-2012. Just last month, The Kitchen Library followed suit, setting up shop in the heart of Toronto. It's operated in partnership with the well-established Toronto Tool Library.
While joining these libraries isn't completely free, it's certainly a lot cheaper than outfitting an entire kitchen. Becoming a member at Kitchen Share is predicated on a small ($10-30) one-time donation, though the organization's website states that "no one is turned away for lack of funds." Membership at the Kitchen Library, on the other hand, will run you $50 a year. And yes, there are nominal late fees for overdue appliances, just like at your old-school book library.
Although the Kitchen Library has only been open for a few weeks, founder Dayna Boyer says the experience thus far has been quite positive. "My members seem to be very satisfied," she says, and borrowers "have been very respectful toward the equipment and the library community."
The older Kitchen Share boasts around 275 members, and has made almost 700 loans since it opened. According to founding director Robin Koch, the response in Portland has been enthusiastic. What's more, she's observed that members tend to tell their friends, "so a lot of people in the area know that we're here if they need us."
Boyer says that canners and roasters are proving the most popular items at the Kitchen Library. At Kitchen Share, Koch cites dehydrators, juicers, ice cream makers, and food processors as the most heavily used appliances, but says that can change depending on the time of year. "During apple season," she notes, "our two cider presses are reserved almost continuously and we've had to turn a few people away."
While it's still early days for Toronto's Kitchen Library, Boyer hopes to build upon the start-up's initial success by expanding into culinary workshops. The long-term plan, she says, is to seek out a separate storefront with a kitchen in the back, so the library can host cooking classes.
Though they might not make much sense to suburbanites with spacious open-plan kitchens, these libraries could prove to be an enduring resource for city-dwellers cooped up in small apartments—or for lower-income families who can't justify the purchase of a stand mixer or bread machine. And if they prove as popular as the 50-plus tool lending libraries scattered around North America, we expect their ranks to grow.
Contributing: James Aitchison
[Hero image: Flickr user "chiotsrun"]