The Book Thing? Free for all

Posted Nov. 12, 2009, at 6:17 p.m.

Tucked into uptown Baltimore, in an unlikely neighborhood marked by boarded-up windows and abandoned lots not far from Johns Hopkins University, is a rare, gem of a find. It’s called The Book Thing, and on any given weekend, it’s home to roughly 200,000 books.

The price for one of these books? Nothing. They’re free. All of them. Take as many as you want.

They’re serious. In fact, they’re downright encouraging. Please, take and read the books.

Russell Wattenberg opened The Book Thing in 1999 with a simple, specific mission: to put unwanted books into the hands of those who want them. And that’s exactly what he does. Taking books donated from libraries, publishers, reviewers, authors, illustrators and individuals, Wattenberg keeps the simple wooden shelves stocked full of books. Free for the taking.

“I take books that I find, or that people give me, and I give them to people who need or want them,” says Wattenberg. “I hate seeing good books that people can use in boxes in people’s basements or collecting dust on shelves, especially when there are others who don’t have the money to buy a new book or ready access to used books.”

Wattenberg was working in a downtown bar when the seeds for The Book Thing first germinated in his mind. Teachers who frequented the bar often complained that their students didn’t have access to books. After Wattenberg began setting aside some of his own tip money for books for their students, word spread, and people began donating old books to him. “These are for your book thing,” they said.

Wattenberg kept the volumes stacked in his beat-up van, telling teachers to go take whatever they wanted for their students. Sometimes — word has it — he would drive to a crowded bus stop or playground, throw open the doors and announce, “Free books!”

Wattenberg has come a long way since he Robin-Hooded literature from the back of a van. The Book Thing today is a thriving business — if it can be called that. A pile of empty boxes has been set out for customers, further encouraging them to take as many as they can carry. And for the other end of the process, a giant drop box out front will take donations.

“There are so many schools in Baltimore without libraries,” Wattenberg says. “There are communities without books and other communities where books are being taken to the dump. What I try to do is take the books from people who don’t want them and give them to people who do want them. There is some selfishness in-volved, because I figure that if everyone reads a lot, there’ll be more people to have intelligent conversations with. What’s more, if someone reads a book that I haven’t read yet, they can tell me about it and I can learn whether or not I’m interested.”

As I am a rabid book-lover myself, Wattenberg sounded like a kindred spirit. I set off to join the steady stream of people going into The Book Thing.

A set of unfinished, amenity-free rooms, the place is a mecca for book-lovers. Shelves are divided by genre, but from there, the hunt is yours. Don’t even ask whether they have a certain copy of a particular book — they move such a large volume of books that simply separating the law, botany, history and parenting books from the paperback and hardback fiction is task enough. “Come down and look yourself,” they advise if you ask about a title or author. “Besides, the search is half the fun — who knows what else you might find?”

Located between the university and the kind of road I wouldn’t walk down alone at night, The Book Thing’s clientele is as diverse as Baltimore itself. Everyone from the homeless to university professors peruse these shelves for a volume. Children’s books are conveniently kept close to the floor. A handful of volunteers re-stack the shelves even as books walk out the door.

I am amazed that this place is sustainable, but you can’t argue with success. They sell less than 1 percent of the books donated to them to used-book stores, using the profits from those sales to cover overhead or, just as likely, simply trading them for still more books. A registered nonprofit, they are happy to take monetary donations through their Web site. Their modest wish list includes lumber, insulation, copy paper, and cans of soda or water for their volunteers.

The Book Thing is open only on weekends, and it’s usually full of people. Before going inside, I promise myself not to go too crazy — no more than four books. And with the book turnover being what it is, I have plans to go back soon.

“Next Saturday morning — bright and early.”

So what is this place — a store, a charity, a lending library, or what? It’s Russell Wattenberg’s book thing — you know —The Book Thing.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at meg@margaret-adams.com

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