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Mobtown Beat

Free Don’t Come Cheap

Book Thing Raising Money to Make its Move To Waverly

The Book Thing's Russ Wattenberg.

By Ron Cassie | Posted 2/23/2005

The Book Thing of Baltimore Inc., Russell Wattenberg’s free book exchange, is planning a move from its home of five years in the rear basement of 2645 N. Charles St. to new digs in Waverly this April.

Though not quite a done deal—most of the down payment and closing costs still need to raised—Wattenberg signed a contract at the beginning of this year to purchase and relocate into the former home of Micro Records Co., a microfiche storage service, at 3001 Vineyard Lane.

It’s hoped the 6,955-square-foot, white-block building on the tiny diagonal street running from the corner of Barclay and East 30th streets to Greenmount Avenue will provide stability for the Book Thing, which has been renting its current spot. In addition, the new space would allow the Book Thing to expand and offer customers better access to its huge stock of donated free reading materials inside.

“We outgrew this place a long time ago,” Wattenberg says on a busy recent Sunday morning. “But unless there is a deadline, a crisis point, it’s hard to get people to see there is a need.”

The crisis point came this past September when the Book Thing’s rowhouse was sold. The rent was jacked from $235 to $525 per month for a space that has no air conditioning, heat, bathrooms, or wiggle room between the ceiling-high stacks. The new landlord, Wattenberg says, wants to renovate the Book Thing’s basement space into an apartment or office space. At the moment, the Book Thing is operating on a month-to-month lease.

A real-estate agent friend of the Book Thing, which began out of the back of Wattenberg’s battered blue van six years ago, started searching for potential new homes for the organization months ago. The Book Thing originally was looking at 122 W. North Ave. (“Stayin’ Alive,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 20, 2004), but recently settled on the Waverly spot as its best option.

“It’s a matter of balance,” Wattenberg says. “We need a place that’s accessible by public transportation, that’s within walking distance of a large number of city residents, and somewhere that people from the county will be comfortable driving to drop off books.”

Finances for the nonprofit are also an issue, as it will have to cough up cash for settlement costs and a mortgage that will be triple its present rent. But Wattenberg is taking a leap of faith. “I see this as a referendum on the Book Thing and how important it is to Baltimore,” he says.

According to Wattenberg, the Book Thing has secured a $210,000 mortgage at an 8 percent interest rate from a private individual, amortized over 30 years—but due in three—toward the $260,000 price of the building. Another real-estate agent, Dennis German, is handling the sale and said the deal requires the Book Thing to front a $50,000 down payment, $10,000 closing costs, and then assume a monthly payment of $1,500 for 36 months.

“At the end of the three years the remainder is due in a balloon mortgage,” says German, who lives in Roland Park and has had several members of his Boy Scout troop, including his son, perform community service for the Book Thing.

“It gives time to refinance or pay off the balance in cash,” he says. “In commercial real estate that’s more often the case—you’re hard-pressed to find a lending institution to make a loan for 10 years.”

German adds that the interest rate and down payment being asked of the Book Thing are typical for similar commercial real-estate sales.

Meanwhile, the folks in Waverly are looking forward to the invasion of their neighborhood by Wattenberg and his several hundred thousand used books.

“We’re excited about them coming, there’s been somewhat of a partnership between us,” says Rupert Wondolowski of Normals, a used-books and -records store located around the corner from the Vineyard location the Book Thing is looking at. “He sells us some books, and we’ve helped them keep going. Hopefully, the two of us together will form a critical mass and we’ll become a new one-stop-shopping book row.”

Tweefie Millspaugh, 52, lives with her son on Vineyard, which contains a mix of narrow single-family homes and small businesses. Millspaugh is a member of the Abell Improvement and Vineyard associations, and she says she is thrilled about the Book Thing’s potential change of address.

“I’ve come [to the Book Thing] a bunch,” she says. “Someone told me they were looking at Micro and word got around pretty fast. Everything it will bring is all good. We’re happy to have a good business.”

The downside of all this, of course, is reserved for those in Charles Village who enjoy browsing though the new arrivals of donated books. The new building is eight blocks away from the current location.

“Poor baby,” responds an unsympathetic Wattenberg, when a reporter complained to him about the long hike to Waverly. After all, he only has six weeks left to beg, borrow, or steal $40,000 to make his down payment.

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