Book Thing cashes in online

Critics say sales seem to violate the spirit of free book exchange in Baltimore

April 26, 2007|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun reporter

Russell Wattenberg, the creator of The Book Thing of Baltimore, dreamed up a business model that people seem to love: Every weekend, the quirky New York native collects thousands of donated books and then gives them away to eager bibliophiles who descend upon his free nonprofit bookstore to load up on Krantz, Clancy and Chaucer.

But hidden in those donated books are some gems, and Wattenberg acknowledges that he digs them out and sells about 2,000 a year, far more, apparently, than most donors think.

No one suggests that Wattenberg is using the proceeds for anything more than supporting The Book Thing. (He lives in a back room and says he doesn't have a personal bank account.) But for book lovers who donate a cumulative million volumes a year - and freely help themselves to perhaps just as many - the sales seem to violate the spirit of the book exchange.

Wattenberg now concedes that The Book Thing's Web site - which until recently stated that "fewer than .0002 percent" of the books were sold - was incorrect. In fact, he consigns books to auctioneers and uses Web sites to sell others.

"That's how we're able to give away thousands of books every weekend," Wattenberg said. "It wouldn't be possible otherwise."

But booksellers insist that Wattenberg should be more up front about the growing number of books he creams from donations, how much money he is getting for them online, and how that money is being spent at The Book Thing, a charity that has received grants from local entities such as the Open Society Institute, the Abell Foundation and Kiwanis.

A recent survey of the Internet sites AbeBooks.com and Amazon.com found more than 4,000 titles for sale by a business linked to The Book Thing called Boards & Wraps, bookbinding lingo for hardcovers and paperbacks. The online ads make no mention that proceeds from sales would go to a nonprofit in Baltimore, although Wattenberg's name and The Book Thing's Waverly address are listed.

"We don't think it is a bad endeavor, but it is odd to have a place that is half a commercial store but is not understood as such," said John Berndt, co-owner of Normals, a used book and record store in Waverly. "There needs to be some kind of clarity that the books that people drop off will not all be available for other people to get for free."

Booksellers say they often see Wattenberg at a local post office with boxes of books for shipment to online buyers. Some say they have stopped donating books to The Book Thing as a result of the increase in online sales and report strained relations with Wattenberg, who marks his books with a "Not for Resale" stamp and threatens those who try to sell the books with legal action.

"He is competing directly against hard-working people who are struggling to get by," said Michael Cantor, owner of Salamander Books in Hampden. "He has severely hurt the book-browsing business."

Wattenberg has heard much of the criticism before.

He says money from online sales goes directly into the nonprofit's bank accounts or CDs. Money raised also helps pay The Book Thing's bills, including Wattenberg's salary, stated at $11,422 on the nonprofit's 2005 tax form. Wattenberg says he earns less than that - surviving on pizza and grinders he shares with volunteers - but the nonprofit had to put something down so he could receive health benefits.

He is also up against a deadline: He has until next April to pay off the $208,994 mortgage on his 7,000-square-foot store. He said he keeps Board & Wraps separate from The Book Thing because he doesn't want to mix commercial sales with charity.

"I don't want the perception to be that if you have money, you get better books," Wattenberg said.

But in some cases you do.

If you're hunting for a first edition of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, a 1968 novel that was the basis of the film Blade Runner, you won't find it on The Book Thing's shelves. Instead, Wattenberg has placed it for sale for $1,750 on AbeBooks.com. The site also offers first editions of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita for $1,699 and $950, respectively.

Wattenberg said the books - which are among the most pricey of his online listings - were donated by a supporter explicitly for fundraising, but he acknowledges that many of the titles listed online were donated by people who had no idea what they were giving up. He said that although he tries, he cannot always locate people who mistakenly donate rare books to The Book Thing.

"When I get stuff that has a high value I try to track down the people who donated it," Wattenberg said, adding that he also gets family photos, wedding certificates, diaries and even dentures, items he tries to reconnect with owners.

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