The Baltimore 'Book Thing' is give and take
Russell Wattenberg had an idea: Give books away – preferably in bulk.
Does Russell Wattenberg love books? And how!Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"Russell believes every book has a home somewhere," says Dick Macksey. Indeed, he spends his days trying to place millions of unwanted or abandoned books, orphans, so to speak. "I think he gets up in the morning to find people who will want all these books, as if they [the books] have a personality, " says Mr. Macksey, a friend, a member of the board of directors, and a volunteer at Mr. Wattenberg's peculiar charity.
You could call it an idée fixe, a notion that's put a half nelson on his brain, an obsession. Or you could call it what everybody else does: The Book Thing. That's the name Wattenberg chose when he started to gather books to give away at schools, in jails, on street corners, and from a dank basement near The Johns Hopkins University campus.
"At no point did I consciously think I was going to give away books," says Wattenberg. Nor was he animated by an epiphany of some sort. It was more like a benign impulse, such as that felt by someone holding a door for someone in need: no big thing for the door opener, important for the one enabled to pass.
Thirteen words describe Wattenberg's purpose: "taking books people don't want and giving them to people who want them."
Wattenberg is 35, big, somewhat on the wide side. Much of his face hides behind a beard as big as a cloud. He's unkempt, favoring T-shirts from thrift shops. He draws a meager salary for his labors and lives like a monk in a small apartment with his cat, Miss Marple. He's amiable, a bit quick with the Brooklyn back talk, and actually charismatic, at least to some among the scores of volunteers who keep his enterprise going.
He's modest, claiming he's recycling rather than gift-giving: "I'm a middleman; say somebody has a load of National Geographic magazines and offers them to a school. The principal can't take them. We take them. Then teachers from that school come and take them back to the school.
"Or a student takes a copy of 'Of Mice and Men.' It's brought back when the semester ends, goes out again for a summer reading program. Comes back. It continues until the book falls apart. I call it the life cycle of a textbook." That's Wattenberg being anthropomorphic about his books.
The Book Thing of Baltimore is open every weekend, 9 to 6. About 1,200 people pass through. It occupies a large, cinder-block building with barred windows. It's ugly, but inside, Wattenberg's world is bright, white, and capacious, with a mile-and-a-half of shelving through four rooms.
There's a map to get you around: One room is loaded with fiction; another holds volumes on US, European, Asian, and world history, political theory, philosophy; in another are maps, biographies, travel books, African-American themes. All interests are served: classic literature, poetry, art, gardening, parenting, sports. All are free.
Rules are simple: you take as many books as you want. (It's said that Wattenberg is disappointed if you don't take at least 20.) All you have to do is write the number you take and sign your name. Each book is tattooed:
This is a Free Book.
NOT TO BE RESOLD
"I always take 20," says Angela Costantini, packing a box one recent Sunday morning with romance novels for the people in the nursing home where she works and thrillers for herself. "It's a great place for books if you're in school," as she is, studying social work. "Once I took 60. I needed help getting them out." Like her, many take books for others: to send to the ravaged libraries of New Orleans, to veterans' hospitals, to Iraq.
Jennifer Dubyoski, here for the first time, stuffs her box with children's books. She learned of The Book Thing while watching TV at college, near Boston. "I saw that Russell's limit on how many you can take was 150,000," she says, straight-faced. "So, I brought my seven siblings. "And there they are – Josh, 6; Kristina, 8; Sam, 10; Teresa, 13; Nathan, 15; Emily, 17; Jason, 22 – gleefully emptying shelves.
"I love books," she says, and smiles.