Book Thing increases in volume, volumes

Trading: A city institution that offers free reads moves to a less cramped location.

July 03, 2005|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

The truly obsessive book seekers assemble early Saturday mornings outside a Waverly back door to score their week's literary booty at the Book Thing of Baltimore, where trunk-loads of volumes change hands for free, no questions asked.

Some weeks ago, after nearly five years in a claustrophobic rented Charles Village basement, the exchange settled into its own quarters, a roomy commercial building off Greenmount Avenue. The Book Thing now boasts 1 1/2 miles of lumber shelves (all tightly filled), a donations drop-off loading dock, offices, a lunchroom for volunteers and a sorting area.

On a brisk weekend, 20,000 books will disappear from the newly acquired warehouse at 3001 Vineyard Lane, but another 20,000 might arrive.

Presiding over this paper empire is its founder, Russell Wattenberg, 32, a self-described book maniac who dresses in baggy blue jeans and has never said no to an offer of printed pages held together by glue and binding. Wattenberg's goal is simple: to empower the multitudes with knowledge from the tons of books he gives away.

Wattenberg says moving the nonprofit to the new location was a good decision.

"The building's price was $260,000, cheaper than a rowhouse in Charles Village," said Wattenberg. "In the old location I never had a bathroom. Now I have four." And a mortgage and $5,000 in a monthly expense tab.

The Book Thing also has no shortage of takers or givers every Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

If anything, Wattenberg would like to distribute more books to those who cannot afford to buy them, even at thrift-store prices. "Be greedy," he says as he walks among his book takers. But you can be rich too. Anyone who wants books is free to fill a box.

"I want the books in people's homes and in their hands," he said. "The books don't do any good on shelves and in boxes."

Those who come for the free books might be schoolteachers wanting to beef up classroom libraries, home-schooling parents in search of texts or casual readers in need of another Stephen King. There's always a good number of children's books. Donors can be anyone who wants to clear out a little shelf space.

"I teach English so I have a lot of books," said Jim Miller, a former St. Paul's School for Boys faculty member who is moving to a new job at Friends Select, a school in downtown Philadelphia.

As he lifted several beer cartons of books, Miller described his donation as "the books I haven't looked at in a year that somebody else will be happy with."

Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Wattenberg is a former Dougherty's Pub bartender and manager who used to listen to schoolteachers complain of a lack of books. He started the Book Thing in 1996. Since then, his good work has been profiled by the major news media. He also received grants from Baltimore's Abell and Goldseker foundations, along with checks from private donors. This enables him to be paid a salary.

"It's not a complicated idea. It came about in a bar," Wattenberg said.

He tries to strike a weekly balance between the number of books donated each week and getting them recirculated.

Donations run heavy this time of the year. There's housecleanings, unsold items from garage and yard sales, teachers emptying out classrooms and boxloads from downsizing empty nesters and people leaving Baltimore, he said.

All his books carry a rubber-stamped line: "Not for Resale. THIS IS A FREE BOOK." In this spirit, Wattenberg refuses to place a donation can or jar by his door.

His volunteers assemble Wednesday nights for sorting and shelving. They typically call it a night by 10 p.m. but have been known to go on to 1 a.m.

City schoolteachers are among the Book Thing's steadiest constituents.

"What he's doing is an invaluable service," said Joyce Anderson, a ninth-grade U.S. history teacher at Digital Harbor High School. She filled two bookcases of classroom materials, including presidential biographies, this past academic year.

Michel Pratka, a Lake Clifton High School art teacher, comes early Saturday for the art history volumes, which she says are among the first books to go.

"Art reproductions are expensive," she said. "But this way, if the students are interested in a book, they can take it home."

Occasionally, Wattenberg and his volunteer sorters strike pay dirt. A good first edition might pay a chunk of the mortgage or utility bill. And sometimes there are hidden assets in the books collected by group. A prime example is a 1920s novel titled The Money Man.

"I was leafing through it and $12 came out," said Dale Thorp, a volunteer sorter who lives in nearby Charles Village.

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