What if the resources that are available to communities when disaster strikes and things are at their worst were also available year round to help our communities become their best?
Nicholas Oberfrank, or Obie as he’s known around Cherokee Street, has seen the worst. The Florida and New Jersey native is the founder and current president of the Cherokee Street Tool Library, which officially opened its doors in September 2022 at 3355 California, just north of Cherokee Street. However, his background is in seasonal forestry and disaster response for nonprofits —and it was while aiding the recovery efforts after Hurricane Michael that the idea for the Tool Library was born.
“We had over 100 people out in the field in four different counties in Florida, and it was very stressful,” Oberfrank said. “I remember seeing there for the first time a non-profit called ToolBank, which was basically a tool library for non-profits that was only active during disasters. I remember looking at it like, ‘Wow, why don’t we do this everywhere just for regular people?’”
Now, the Cherokee Street Tool Library is one of the few—out of, Obie estimates, around 45—tool banks in the nation. The model is simple: the community owns shared tools and equipment, and neighbors are welcome to borrow whatever they need.
Oberfrank has been in St. Louis on and off since the second half of 2018. While he came here for work, he says he instantly fell in love with the city. He now lives in Gravois Park, near the Cherokee Street area.
“I’d always promised myself that when I did settle down somewhere, I’d be as active as possible in the community,” he said. “After doing some research into the area, I noticed lots of first-time homeowners, lots of craftspeople, lots of vacant buildings, lots of community improvement needing to be done. The more research I did, I realized St. Louis needed this—that Cherokee Street specifically needed this.”
Oberfrank went on a road trip, visiting tool libraries throughout the country to learn what he could. Since then, him and the other co-founders Jason O’Malley and Matt Temple have replicated other cities’ success—and put their own spin on what a Tool Library looks like.
How It Works:
Want to borrow an angle grinder or need a couple extra hand clamps for a project? The Tool Library operates on a membership model. Membership is open to St. Louis City residents, 18 years or older for a membership fee of $50 a year. Members can borrow up to 8 tools at a time for a two week period before they need to be returned, or use the library space to work on personal projects.
The tool inventory is varied — and growing, offering everything from hand tools, specialty power tools, and guidebooks for masonry or carpentry (not to mention a surprising catalog of board games).
Borrowing Tools Is Just the Beginning
In addition to rentals, Cherokee Tool Library also offers different workshops and community-focused events each month: do-it-yourself home repair lessons, basic tuck pointing and electrical seminars, and terrarium building; even pop-up concerts, board game nights, and community potlucks.
“Anything to bring in as large a group as possible to this space every single month,” Oberfrank said. “The tools and equipment and knowledge are very, very cool, but the real special thing is, of course, the community we are building. The people getting to know each other and sharing their knowledge and passions and projects.”
Since its inception, the Tool Library has gone above and beyond Oberfrank’s expectations in terms of tool inventory, membership numbers, and community engagement—all factors that affirm his choice of Cherokee Street as the project’s venue.
“Cherokee Street and South St. Louis has a large art scene, and has a lot of do-it-yourself people and culture,” Oberfrank said. “People are very active out here; they just need the literal tools and sometimes just the knowledge to know how to fix it, how to do it, how to make it better. I’ve never been to a city anywhere in the country where we have such a high concentration of community-minded people. That’s why this is the right spot for the Tool Library.”
Aside from the food (Oberfrank names El Torito as a personal favorite), his favorite part of Cherokee Street is the passion of residents.
“I love the people on Cherokee Street,” he said. “The usual crowd, the artists, the passionate people, the ones doing projects on their own and not taking no for an answer.”
It’s that resilient spirit, Oberfrank says, that makes him optimistic for the future—not just for the Tool Library, but for the area.
“I think the future looks like a lot of affordable housing opportunities for people, and I say that because that’s something else that I’m directly working on,” he said. “That’s a big end goal, a steady stream of fix-up properties and keeping housing affordable for people in the neighborhood.”
In the meantime, Oberfrank says, the Tool Library is always looking for a hand. If you have experience in craftsmanship or contractor work? Teach a lesson. If you have time and want to give back to the City? Volunteer.
And if you just want to stop by? Please do. There’s something at the Tool Library for everyone.
Cherokee Street Tool Library is located at 3355 California at Cherokee Street. The library is currently open to the public on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday from 12pm - 8pm.