You'd never know it driving past, but the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street is the epicenter of Tucson geekdom.
That's no putdown; everyone geeks out on something. And whatever that something is—be it gardening, crochet or building robots—Xerocraft Hackerspace, at 1301 S. Sixth Ave., is quickly becoming the place to do it in Southern Arizona.
Take Alex Barton. The 26-year-old electronics technician recently spent a weekend at Xerocraft bottling a case of American ale in the backyard of the 900-square-foot workshop. He also recently put the finishing touches on a pair of what he calls meditation glasses: They're regular sunglasses wired with flashing LED strobe lights that induce a state of deep relaxation if you turn the lights on while your eyes are closed.
Barton made those at Xerocraft, too. He guarantees that they work.
"Absolutely," he said.
Beer and brain glasses. That's Xerocraft.
"I grew up opening cameras and shocking the hell out of myself," said Barton, who recently moved to Tucson after working for an aerospace firm in Mississippi. "I just fell in love with how excited people were about their projects. There's a sense of community and openness here."
The Xerocraft workshop is part of a growing international movement of community-owned workshops known as hackerspaces. The idea is to connect veteran or would-be inventors, tinkerers and DIYers. The website hackerspaces.org shows that similar workshops have popped up in every corner of the globe, from Phoenix to Uganda.
Lest the word "hacker" deceive, Xerocraft and its kind aren't just collections of coders and programmers. Members will tell you that the hacker ethos is much broader.
Ripping things apart, fixing them and/or making them do something different—that's what hacking is, said Dale Tersey, a 60-year-old hydrologist and Xerocraft's elder statesman. Tersey, who favors plaid shirts and a broad-brimmed Indiana Jones-style hat, casts sculptures out of molten aluminum using Styrofoam molds.
"Whatever anybody wants to do, we'll come up with the materials to do it," he said.
The workshop is strewn with tools, boxes full of circuit boards, writing implements, bookshelves stuffed with manuals, empty cans of Lipton Brisk Ice Tea and the occasional pastry box from Le Cave's Bakery next door.
Parked in one corner of the room is a remote-controlled gizmo on wheels—a bit like a toy car, but not really—with a sign that says, "Caution: Does Not Obey the Three Laws of Robotics."
Xerocraft itself is something of a monument to the do-it-yourself philosophy. The hackerspace—which now includes about 30 regulars and is governed by consensus—started with two people in a storage shed behind Dry River Radical Resource Center, an anarchist collective at 740 N. Main Ave.
Oliver Savage, a lifelong DIYer, got it in his head to start a Tucson hackerspace in late 2010. Savage, 36, said he probably came across the concept on the Web, but he can't exactly remember where. A member of Dry River, he asked the collective to grant him some space for his idea, and the membership voted yes.
"I just went from there and started cleaning things up and setting out things that I found in Dumpsters, plus computers people had given me. I pulled things apart and put them into different bins, just to create an atmosphere," Savage said.
He roped in a friend from Dry River, Josh Banno, a teacher who counts gardening and sustainable building among his passions. Banno remembers the early Xerocraft days as humble, at best. Although they were grateful for the space, the original shed was basically four walls, a rickety plywood floor and a ceiling that was no match for the summer monsoon.
"It wasn't particularly well-suited for what we were trying to do," Banno said.
Xerocraft started to pick up steam through word of mouth, gaining regulars like Tersey. And it found its own makeshift sugar daddy, Connor Barickman, a 24-year-old mechanical engineering graduate from Cal Poly.
The Xerocraft crew realized they needed a new space, but the fledgling nonprofit couldn't afford rent. After a grand warehouse tour of Tucson, Barickman, an engineer at a local solar energy company, decided on a novel solution: He'd split the rent with the hackerspace. Xerocraft is downstairs, and Barickman lives upstairs.
"I knew the only way we were going to make it was if somebody moved in," said Barickman.
Making himself literally at home on the Xerocraft back patio, Barickman laid out in detail why he feels so strongly about his hackerspace roommate.
"It wasn't that long ago when people built their own things and fixed their things that were broken," he said. "There's always been money to go out and buy new junk. But, unfortunately for a lot of people, that's not an option anymore."
Xerocraft offers its services to everyone. A $40 monthly membership fee—or in lieu of that, $5 per class—is suggested, but not mandatory. On weekends, members lead workshops covering everything from gardening to simple robotics.
Xerocraft has hosted everyone from University of Arizona engineering students to Girl Scouts. One proud Scout leader, Leon Sierra, is even a member. Sierra has earned a reputation in his neighborhood for his crazy contraptions. He even converted the family vehicle into a Girl Scouts cookiemobile, complete with spinning cookie rims.
"My neighbors don't know what the heck to think of me," Sierra said. "But at Xerocraft, I fell in love. I finally found people just like me."
Xerocraft itself is a nonprofit, but running the hackerspace isn't free. The board has hopes that it will eventually be able to move into an even larger space, but that's not a given, Sierra said.
"We wouldn't have been able to do it without Connor, but we need to be able to stand on our own," he said.
The focus right now is finding committed members. Sierra estimates that Xerocraft needs at least 10 more paid members—probably more—to make a serious go of it.
Barickman put Xerocraft's goal even more bluntly: "Staying open would be really cool."
Not that the members don't have ideas about how to make that happen. Sierra and Barton are already hard at work sewing electroluminescent wires into a jacket that will eventually flash "XEROCRAFT" on the back. The idea is to wear the walking billboard and hopefully draw the attention of would-be hackers.
"We're working on the 1.0 version," said Barton as he bent over to examine some wiring. "But eventually, we'll have a very sweet suit."