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Stayin’ Alive

The Future Looks a Little Brighter for the Book Thing

City Paper Digi-Cam™
Yep, They're Really Free: Russ Wattenberg thinks he's found a new home for the Book Thing of Baltimore

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 10/20/2004

After learning in September that a new landlord planned to double the monthly rent on the Charles Village basement that houses the Book Thing of Baltimore Inc., founder Russ Wattenberg was so irritated that he threatened to shutter the celebrated book exchange and quit town altogether. Less than two months later, the free-book service may have a new lease on life—if it can get a mortgage.

Wattenberg says he’ll enter this week into a contract to purchase for $280,000 a 24,000-square-foot building at 122 W. North Ave. He hopes to relocate by February to the ground floor, and lease the two upper stories to other nonprofit organizations or to students from the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art.

The building is owned by Barry and Beatrice Gotthelf of Baltimore, who have run their Lombard Office Furniture business out of the location since 1977. Though he says reports of an imminent sale are “news to him,” Barry Gotthelf tells City Paper that he is inclined toward reaching an agreement with the Book Thing.

“I have some fondness for what [Wattenberg is] doing,” says Gotthelf, 65, who plans to retire after the sale. “I’d rather see the building used for a good cause, rather than a nightclub or a church.”

On a recent Saturday morning, Wattenberg, 32, takes a break from lecturing disbelieving first-timers on the mechanics of Book Thinging—“all the books are free, yeah, they’re free, yeah”—to chain smoke and tick off the advantages of the new space: “Bathrooms, heat, handicap accessibility, parking, proximity to the Light Rail and a bunch of bus routes.”

A woman trips on her way down the steep, narrow brick steps leading into the clammy basement.

“Also, that won’t happen,” he adds.

The Book Thing, which typically offers 250,000 donated volumes at any one time, outgrew its present North Charles Street location years ago, Wattenberg says. He estimates that the new building—which boasts a ground floor eight times the size of the 950-square foot basement—will allow him to stock a million free books.

In a moment of rare sanguineness, Wattenberg says he is “cautiously optimistic” that he can raise the money needed to buy the building, “if the people who have the money and support what I do are willing to put their money where their mouth is.”

He may need a gentler sales pitch.

In exchange for a nonrefundable $5,000 deposit, the sales contract would give the Book Thing 45 days to come up with an $80,000 down payment and a bank willing to loan it the balance.

Wattenberg says that early response to fund raising has been encouraging. A board member and two anonymous donors put up the $5,000 deposit, which will go toward the down payment. And he says that the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s economic development agency, has agreed to finance half of the mortgage at 2 percent interest, if the Book Thing can find an independent lender for the other half.

When pressed, the perennially dour Wattenberg admits he has been buoyed by the initial support, but quickly reverts to his trademark fatalism. “This is pretty much my last stand. If I can’t get this building [purchased], that’s it,” he shrugs. “I’ll close up.”

“He’s gotten meaner,” jokes Russell Jacobs, a Book Thing volunteer, when asked if the prospect of a new location has softened Wattenberg’s gruff personality.

Wattenberg does permit himself a quick smile, however, when he talks about one aspiration for the new space. “I’ll be able to have a children’s section,” he says, gesturing to the crowd of people squeezed into the warrenlike basement. “Where kids can actually hang out and read.”

Then he squeezes his substantial frame past some book browsers and staples a purple poster to a bookshelf. It reads, “The Book Thing has found a new home. We just need enough money to purchase it.”

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