OTR's Play Library offers toys and games on loan, helps Cincy settle into global sharing economy

On March 15, Over-the-Rhine will welcome a playful new member to its family of innovative businesses, as the Play Library — a loan library for toys and games — opens two blocks from Washington Park and just steps from the streetcar stop at Liberty and Elm.

“Librarian” Julia Rose Fischer is excited to welcome children of all ages, and she knows toys. Originally from New York City, she worked in Los Angeles after college, designing for retailers with low price points. She was feeling disappointed with the quality of the low-cost materials when the idea for the Play Library came to her.

She remembers: “It was around the time when all these share models like Airbnb were getting popular, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if everyone, no matter what your finances, could have access to really cool, high-quality toys by sharing them?’”

Fischer soon learned hers wasn’t a totally new idea. Toy libraries are fairly common in places like Australia and the United Kingdom, where they are publicly funded. The model exists in the United States, but is often exclusive to schools or organizations that serve children with special needs.

A toy library works like a traditional book library, but instead of families owning (and storing) a plethora of popular items, they have the option of visiting the Play Library, checking items out and returning them when they’re done.

It's all part of a so-called “sharing economy” of recent years, a concept that has been applied to everything from ride-sharing, via apps like Uber and Lyft, to cameras, outdoor equipment, prom dresses and fresh produce.

Other local businesses getting in on the shared action include Zipcar, a car-sharing program introduced in 2012, and Red Bike, which was rolled out by the City of Cincinnati in 2015. Red Bike has since exceeded expectations for ridership and expanded to Northern Kentucky.

Incubators and nonprofits get in on the sharing

In 2012, the nonprofit Cincinnati Community Toolbank opened, offering tool and equipment rental to members for pennies on the dollar.

Then, in 2015, the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County took the leap beyond books and digital media, opening its first MakerSpace. The shared design studio gives members access to professional audio-visual tools, sewing machines, 3D printers, laser cutting machines and more. There are now four such MakerSpaces within the library district.

All good ideas require investment to get off the ground. Fischer’s Play Library first came to life through a Globe Grant from People’s Liberty in 2015.

People’s Liberty Program Director Megan Trischler knew the Play Library would be a success. “It was clear to the jury that some significant thought and energy had already been invested. As a toy designer, Julia had the skillset to pull the project off. Beyond that, Julia is a curious, passionate individual willing to take a risk and go all in. And that, she did.”

People’s Liberty awards three Globe Grants each year. In addition to $15,000 in funding, grantees are given full access to the People’s Liberty support system and network of mentors and professionals. They are also given five to six weeks to transform the People’s Liberty storefront space into “provocative, interactive installations that engage the surrounding Findlay Market neighborhood.”

In 2016, the Play Library opened for a few months at People’s Liberty. Now, Fischer is ready to open at her new location, just a few blocks from where she started.

Limiting waste and building community through play

Toy libraries give kids access to toys they may not have otherwise — and parents can try before they buy. The Play Library’s offerings range from popular items like board games and art supplies to more specialty items like camping tents and robots. They offer outdoor play equipment and remote control toys, too.

Heather Bethune is an OTR resident and mother of four. She and her husband Levi serve on the Play Library’s board and volunteered at its Globe storefront last year. She is excited to see the concept find a permanent home here.

“What appeals to me about the Play Library is similar to the appeal of a book library: access,” says Bethune. “You have so much access to a wide array of resources, without having to house them all yourself or be responsible for a huge toy closet or game shelves.”

As a parent, Bethune understands the importance of play in family bonding and knows how hard it is to find focused time to play together. Spending time with her children at the Play Library provides an easy opportunity for this.

“When you're truly present in the moment with a child, you are giving them the best gift possible,” Bethune says. “Children do not live in the past or the future, but wholly in the present. When we join them there, there is connection. Something as simple as a new toy can inspire such moments.”

Bethune is also excited about the benefits of sharing for the broader community. Comparing it to borrowing a lawnmower or a cup of sugar, she says sharing brings neighbors together. “Owning less benefits any community of people. Sharing more of the things we all use brings more human connection and less landfill waste.”

Fischer wholeheartedly agrees. The waste produced by the toy industry is one of the reasons Fischer got out of the industry in the first place. She was tired of making what she calls “colorful landfill.”

Welcoming everyone in to play

Fischer’s vision is for the Play Library is to be accessible for all. That’s why playtime is free during business hours.

“The whole definition of a library is that everyone can come whether you’re homeless or a billionaire,” Fischer says. “Everyone is welcome at a library.”

Fischer couldn’t find a business model that allowed the library to remain free to the public, so she registered as a nonprofit, allowing her to seek grant funding and donations.

There are paid memberships available for those who want to borrow toys to take home. Fischer eventually plans to make memberships free or more affordable for those who can’t pay. For now, people can sponsor a membership for someone else, similar to “paying it forward” at a coffee shop.

The toy library concept is already striking a chord beyond Cincinnati. Fischer has heard from people in Chicago and Philadelphia, and she welcomes these inquiries.

“If these could pop up in every community everywhere, I think that would be fantastic,” Fischer says.

The March 15 grand opening will feature coffee from nearby Pleasantry, as well as a small gift shop featuring locally made goods and toys. The Play Library’s Facebook page lists upcoming events. Those interested in membership or signing up for the newsletter can visit the website.

In addition to families with kids, Fischer hopes adults will stop in, too. There is something for everyone, she says. "Toys feel like a service because everyone — no matter how old you are — you are excited to get something new to play with.”

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.
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