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When It Comes to Books, Russell Wattenberg Gives It Away

By Emily Richards | Posted 7/18/2001

It's a varied collection of people in this cramped, dusty book-lined basement at Charles and 27th streets: black, white, Asian; young, middle-aged, old; employed and unemployed; ravenous--grabbing at every book they see--and well-fed, even picky, carefully selecting a volume or two before they leave. A teenage boy with cornrowed hair sifts through a pile of pop fiction. Sylphic college girls lean with hips cocked lazily in the poetry/drama section, pursing their lips and ever-so-carefully perusing spines. A young schoolteacher clutches a stack of history books to his side. A harried mother nudges her children toward the kids' section, glancing nervously at her watch.

The newest arrivals, an older couple, pull up in a Volvo sedan, open the trunk, and hoist out a box full of books. "I'm glad there's a place where they can find a home," the woman muses to no one in particular. "We enjoyed reading them once, but you don't always want to read them again."

"Yeah," the man adds dryly, "especially the Stephen Kings."

Russell Wattenberg lumbers up from the basement to take the box and thank the couple, who climb back in their car and take off. In coming days the box will be unpacked by Wattenberg and his volunteers, sorted by subject, and shelved with the other quarter-million books that fill this basement on any given day. But for now, Wattenberg, between a steady diet of Marlboros and goofy one-liners, has to worry about finding room for the other boxes that will arrive in the coming hours--anywhere from 200 to 5,000 books, if today is like most days.

It's a Saturday morning in early July, and book-depositing and -perusing in this Charles Village cellar are in full swing. It's an unlikely place to find a weekend-morning crowd--half a dirty rowhouse basement where people smoke at will and teetering piles of cardboard boxes are wedged in wherever they'll fit. It's home to the Book Thing of Baltimore Inc., a nonprofit that Wattenberg, its 28-year-old "fearless leader" (per the organization's Web site), says exists to "put unwanted books into the hands of those who want them." If he can fill a need in Baltimore's poor communities, Wattenberg's happy; if he fulfills the fondest desire of well-to-do book fiends, that's OK too. By his count, he has given away approximately 383,000 books in the last year, roughly one-third of them to individuals and the rest to educational and charitable groups.

"It gets more crowded every weekend," Wattenberg says, eyeing today's mob. No surprise, considering he's only open to the public Saturdays and Sundays, and his books are, well, free. "Most of the people who come in here are getting books for themselves or for friends, and they leave with an average of 20 books. But others come in to get books for their church library, or their neighborhood literacy program, or their students, and they leave with a few hundred books."

There is a limit to how many books you can take; according to the Book Thing's Web site (www.bookthing.org), which reflects the proprietor's sense of humor, that number is 150,000. Wattenberg recalls one man from a charity who arrived with a 27-foot Ryder truck and took away more than 20,000 books, which he then shipped to Africa. All books in Wattenberg's basement are stamped not for resale. this is a free book.

While Wattenberg launched the Book Thing in September 1999 as something of a lark, his personal journey suggests it would have taken root somewhere, sooner than later. "My whole family," he says, "we're all pack rats." (Not to mention practiced peddlers: The Wattenbergs spent weekends buying and selling stuff at flea markets, and in junior high young Russell got in trouble for selling candy in the cafeteria.) Going through his parents' house in upstate New York after his father died in 1994, Wattenberg found the detritus of the old's man career as a salesperson: two 5-gallon buckets of DDT; enough liquor to stock a small store; cases of pens, pencils, and other school supplies; and 3,000 three-ring binders.

Nobody would want the DDT, Wattenberg figured as he sifted, but maybe a schoolteacher somewhere needed three-ring binders. And he was struck by the notion that there was an awful lot of stuff lying around unused in attics and garages the world over.

After helping his mother resettle in Florida, Wattenberg moved to Baltimore in October '95 and got a job tending bar at Dougherty's Pub in Mount Vernon. On Friday afternoons, a group of teachers gathered regularly at the bar and griped about the shortage of libraries in city schools. (According to Baltimore City Public School System officials, only one-third of the city's 180 public schools have functional libraries open daily and operated by librarians.) Moved by their stories, Wattenberg emptied his tip jar one day and went garage-sale shopping, returning with nearly 300 used books. The next time the teachers came in for a beer, he tossed them the keys to his van and told them to take what they wanted.

The teachers were thrilled, and the used-book shopping became a habit. By the spring of 1998 Wattenberg was making trips to poorer neighborhoods on his days off, laying out trays of books on a corner and hollering "Free books!" to passersby. Last year he rented basement space in a rowhouse a block from his own home and gave up bartending for the grubby work of finding and giving books full time.

The Book Thing and its founder are currently supported by a $30,000 grant from the Goldseker Foundation and an 18-month, $50,000 fellowship from the Open Society Institute that runs out in about seven months. As for Wattenberg's wares, they come from the city's every nook and corner. This past spring he got tens of thousands books from Baltimore Reads, the city's quasi-public literacy program, and he frequently gets leftovers from yard sales and estate auctions. The result is a huge and eclectic mix.

"One day I was holding up a [1978] bus schedule for Oahu, you know, as a joke," Wattenberg says. "This lady comes up to me and says, 'Excuse me, could I have that? Please?' And I say, 'Sure, of course. But, if you don't mind my asking, why do you want it?' And she says, 'Well, my husband and I took our honeymoon in Oahu, in 1978, and we didn't have any money to rent a car, so we took the bus everywhere.'"

Few libraries would bother shelving much of Wattenberg's inventory--a 1963 Sun almanac; a 1967 hair-color dictionary for American hairdressers; volumes on carving faces out of wood, traditional Scandinavian cuisine, playing strategic soccer, fasting for 20 days. But buried among these varyingly useful treasures are finds educators like Jacqueline Dorsey, a reading teacher with Head Start at St. Bernadine's Church in West Baltimore, eagerly hoard for students. Wattenberg keeps tabs on city public-school reading lists and sets aside any copies of those books he happens upon for teachers. (He does the same for regular customers' favorite authors.)

"It's a great place," says Dorsey, a Book Thing regular. "I usually bring the children here, and they go nuts. They love the National Geographic [magazines], for instance. I had one little girl who went to her teacher and told her about this place. The teacher said to the little girl, 'There are no free books.' So the little girl went home to tell her father about the free books, and he said, 'Nothing's free in life.' She got such a thrill out of proving them wrong."

Asked if he'd ever consider charging for his books--a dime, or even a penny--Wattenberg, as perhaps befits a guy who doesn't smoke menthols but keeps a pack of them in his pocket for bummers, is emphatic. "Never," he says. "That would ruin everything."

For information on donating books or volunteering at the Book Thing of Baltimore, call (410) 662-5631 or e-mail russell@bookthing.org.

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