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Quick and Dirty

Reading Room

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 9/15/2004

“I am incredibly frustrated, annoyed, and angry,” Russ Wattenberg, founder of the Book Thing of Baltimore Inc., said last week after learning that his new landlord plans to double the monthly rent on the Charles Village basement that houses the popular book exchange. “I feel like I’m at the end of one of those old Batman episodes, where Batman and Robin are tied over a vat of acid. I have no idea how the hell I’ll get out.”

The rowhouse in the 2600 block of North Charles Street was sold Sept. 1 to Patrick Agbu, who told City Paper the new rent would be “around $500.” Once Agbu presents Wattenberg with the new lease terms, which he says he’ll likely do this week, the Book Thing will have 60 days to accept or vacate.

With an annual budget of around $50,000, the Book Thing can’t afford even a $50 rent increase, Wattenberg says. Not that he wants to stay in Agbu’s building. Having transformed a charitable hobby run from the back of a van into a full-time vocation that gives away a million books a year, Wattenberg says he and his staff of 25 volunteers have outgrown the 950-square-foot space and are “strangling on our own success.”

An average weekend brings about 600 people to the book-jammed basement. Customers bump and browse—and frequently knock over—the 250,000 free volumes typically available.

“There’s just not enough room here for both the books and the people who want them,” says the bearded Wattenberg, 32, who looks like a young version of a middle-aged Rob Reiner.

The Book Thing has been searching for a larger space in or near Charles Village for several years, but without any luck—or meaningful help, Wattenberg says, from the city or local institutions. Now that he’s got a deadline, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native is considering leaving Baltimore altogether.

A Chicago foundation offered the Book Thing space there after reading a profile on it in The Chicago Tribune in 2002. Wattenberg says he’s received similar offers from Boston and Seattle.

“What it boils down to,” he says, lighting up another in a continuous, angry stream of cigarettes, “is there are three other cities that are willing to get me a space. They’re willing to give me what I don’t get here.”

Baltimore City says it does wants to help. In response to several anxious letters from Book Thing devotees, Mayor Martin O’Malley suggested Wattenberg contact the Baltimore Development Corp. for assistance. M.J. “Jay” Brodie, head of the BDC, says he is “cautiously optimistic” that the economic development agency can help, and that he would personally appeal to Agbu for more time for Wattenberg. Agbu says he might be willing to extend the two-month window for a “reasonable” period of time.

But Wattenberg is not easily assuaged. “Yeah, well, we’ll see what happens,” he says. “I’m not getting my hopes up or anything. But we’ll see.”

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