Free give-and-take of books is his Thing

The future is uncertain for popular exchange shop in Charles Village

August 16, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

For four years now, the ample man who sports a dark bushy beard and baggy blue jeans has given away thousands of books each week to anyone who is willing to come and get them.

Russell Wattenberg rents a basement in a Charles Village rowhouse, calls it The Book Thing, and encourages people to drop off and take as many as they can carry. In return, he asks for a smile, and that the books not be resold.

But the growing popularity of The Book Thing gives the 950-square-foot basement more of the feeling of a crowded subway than a book giveaway.

Tens of thousands of books are piled high from the floor to nearly the ceiling, and passing by someone almost demands an "excuse me."

"I happen to love what I'm doing," Wattenberg said yesterday as he inspected a fresh load of books dropped down in front of him. "But we're outgrowing the space."

He's looking for new digs, which isn't easy when you're a one-man nonprofit and the product you're peddling is free.

Adding a bit of immediacy to the search for a new space is that the building out of which The Book Thing operates is about to be sold, and the prospective buyer hasn't committed to charging Wattenberg the $235 monthly rent he's accustomed to.

"The pressure's on now," said Wattenberg, who says most of his wardrobe consists of T-shirts that say "The Book Thing."

The current owner of the building, a pair of three-story brick rowhouses, says Wattenberg is "a wonderful tenant and does a wonderful service for the neighborhood." But Jay Gouline says he has larger real estate projects he wants to tackle so he's selling the property in the 2600 block of N. Charles St.

"The Book Thing is a beautiful thing to watch," Gouline says.

Wattenberg is looking for a place that has amenities his current location does not: heat, air conditioning, parking spaces, a bathroom and accessibility for the handicapped.

He gets his funding from individuals and private companies, as well as the rare sale of a valuable item. He said he once sold etchings to Sotheby's and other auction houses for $35,000.

Wattenberg draws a salary of $18,000 a year, and says he occasionally has to lay himself off for a week at a time.

"That's always an interesting conversation I have with myself," he says.

Wherever Wattenberg ends up, his 25 loyal volunteers and hundreds of customers are very likely to follow.

Dozens of book seekers milled around the basement yesterday, many piling volumes into cardboard boxes.

Santos Lekgothoane was sitting in a corner, listening to Jamaican music through headphones and thumbing though a book on African languages.

Lekgothoane comes by the store frequently to get books to ship back to South Africa, his homeland. He sends them fourth-class mail, which is inexpensive, but takes several months.

"I send them to my people so they have books," said Lekgothoane, 45, who lives in Druid Hill. "There is such a shortage."

A woman brushes by him on her way out of the store with her young daughter.

Wattenberg looks at the girl, who is about 10, and eyes the several books tucked under her right arm.

"I expect a book report next week," he calls after her.

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