This Former Accountant Wants You to Stop Buying Things and Start Borrowing Them

Jed Oelbaum

Anyone living in the cramped confines of a city apartment knows the pain of not quite having enough space. There’s nowhere to put that Ping-Pong table you’ve always wanted. Your bike is hanging on the wall, and you’ve already stepped on your kid’s Legos twice this week. Storage is expensive. Every new possession, hobby, and project costs not just money, but precious square footage.

The Sharing Depot, Toronto’s first library of things, helps space-starved urbanites cut costs and clutter without giving up access to the stuff they love. A sort of Zipcar for the little things, the Sharing Depot, which opened earlier this year, lets members borrow items like camping gear, sports equipment, toys, and garden tools. Members pay between $50 and $100 Canadian annually; the higher the level of membership the longer you may keep an item.

When I reach Sharing Depot cofounder Ryan Dyment on the phone, the storefront is busy and loud. Patrons can browse an extensive inventory online or search the Depot’s crowded shelves in person. Skill workshops and swap meets keep sharers engaged, and a volunteer program provides free membership in exchange for working a few shifts per month. “You meet a lot of interesting people,” Dyment says earnestly of the Depot’s growing community.

Before they started up the project, Dyment and cofounder Lawrence Alvarez, a community activist, polled local Torontonians to find out what items people needed occasionally but didn’t have room for at home or found too expensive to buy outright. “The most popular were camping gear, toys, party supplies, those kinds of things,” Dyment says. “So we said ‘OK, let’s do a crowdfund, and see if people want to put their money where their mouth is.’”

The project’s IndieGoGo campaign raised more than $30,000, allowing the Sharing Depot to build out its storefront space, pay a few months’ rent, and acquire some basic inventory. Dyment says the Depot is currently dependent on grants for about 20 percent of its funding, but he hopes membership fees can sustain the operation going forward. Now that they’re set up, most of the new items come in via donation. “We have a wish list from people who come in and request things,” Dyment says. “So for example, we didn’t really have great sewing machines, but it was requested, so we did that.”

Dyment recently heard from someone calling to ask if they had a paper shredder.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, you know, actually that’s a good request, I don’t have one,’” Dyment tells me. “And then literally within the hour of hanging up on this person and disappointing them, someone came in and dropped off two paper shredders.”

While loaning out chop saws, folding chairs, and chocolate fondue fountains might not sound like a very direct way to change the world, the ethos of the Sharing Depot taps into much deeper economic and environmental issues for Dyment. The former accountant walked away from a finance career for more meaningful pursuits in 2009, after he began to question the sustainability of modern economies and monetary systems. “Generally the largest impact that an individual makes is through the products they consume,” he says. “We have to find a way to consume less stuff if we care about the environment, if we want to live here for many generations.”

The Sharing Depot has its roots in the Institute for a Resource-Based Economy, a nonprofit started in 2011 to “promote the sharing economy and provide a transition solution to our planetary crises.” Dyment and Alvarez are among the group’s founders. The institute held workshops on “debt-based currency and disruptive technologies,” hosted educational talks, and eventually settled into its biggest project: the Toronto Tool Library.

It was a great concept—a single home repair project could require 15 different tools, but here you could borrow the gear you needed to put up those shelves or retile your bathroom, and then just return it all when you were done. While tool libraries have been around since the 1970s in Ohio, Washington state, and Berkeley, California, Toronto—already home to a particularly robust library culture—didn’t have one yet. Dyment, Alvarez, and their peers had little trouble building partnerships and opening up new facilities—the Toronto tool library has since grown to four locations.

“Quickly it became a very talked about issue in Toronto,” Dyment tells me. “People were loving it: people who were looking for system change, people who were looking to reduce consumption, just as like, an alternative idea of how a society could function.” But, he says, “our goal was never to just do tools, our goal was always to connect these issues on a larger scale.”

And that’s how Dyment began lending out toys, sewing machines, and donated paper shredders. The popularity of the tool library allowed it to spin off the Sharing Depot this year.

Some Sharing Depot members, Dyment tells me, “just have way too much stuff and are doing their best to downsize if they can.” But others, he says, are post-recession, new economy kids who grew up with abundance and now have less than their parents did. “They live in these much smaller spaces, but they still want access to some of this stuff and they don’t know another way,” he says.

But, “a lot of people come to us based on price alone,” Dyment tells me, “and that speaks directly to just how costly it is to live these days. A lot of people are precariously working, they’re not getting the kind of steady income and secure job that they used to.”

Dyment sees a future where automation will likely shift the way we work, urbanization will change the way we live, and transactions will become less dependent on money. He says that as we rapidly head toward that future, we’ll need new ways to provide equitable access to resources. “A lot of people contact us about the tool library and [the Sharing Depot], and we’re just happy to help them get on their feet and make it work in their own communities,” Dyment tells me. “Ultimately, to reduce consumption on any kind of scale, these things have to exist in many neighborhoods all over the place. We can’t do it alone.”

All images courtesy of the Sharing Depot via Facebook