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The Baltimore 'Book Thing' is give and take

Russell Wattenberg had an idea: Give books away – preferably in bulk.

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So how does Wattenberg finance The Book Thing? "I rob liquor stores," he cracks.

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Actually, he solicits grants from charities like the Abel Foundation and the Open Society Institute. He rents books to TV and film producers to decorate their sets. He also sells the rare books that come his way. "A benefactor recently donated half a dozen first editions of Faulkner, and a first US edition of 'Lolita,' " he said.

Wattenberg's online sales of valuable books – some donated, others discovered among the thousands that pour in and whose owners he could not locate – sparked a controversy this year when two local bookstore owners complained that he was competing unfairly.

Wattenberg's response: "That's how we're able to give away thousands of books every weekend. It wouldn't be possible otherwise. We may sell 2,000 books a year, only a quarter of 1 percent of those donated."

Others in Baltimore's used book trade side with him. Kevin Johnson, of Royal Books, says, "I'd never view Russell as a competitor.... We've sent about 15,000 books to The Book Thing." Clifford Panken, the owner of two bookstores, came to Wattenberg's defense in April when the controversy emerged. "It's actually a very noble thing he's doing," he told The Baltimore Sun.

So how did The Book Thing begin?

It began slowly, in a bar.

Wattenberg was 25, a college graduate from Ithaca, N.Y. (and born in Brooklyn), driving to Florida in 1995. He stopped in Baltimore to visit a friend, and wound up tending bar in a place frequented by public school teachers who complained a lot about the high cost of books.

With no plan in mind, he began picking up books in thrift shops, yard sales, and stashing them in his 1984 Dodge van. He not only loves books, he likes to read them: Robert Heinlein, anything by Natalie Goldberg. "I like memoir books about a life I know nothing about."

One night, as the teachers worried their usual subject, Wattenberg announced he had a couple hundred books in his van: They could take what they wanted, which they did. It made them happy, and evidently Wattenberg, too. He kept gathering books. "I put aside 10 percent of my tips to do this," he says.

With his savings and a few thousand dollars inherited from his grandmother, he rented the basement, put in shelves, and opened his door to the public. The Book Thing of Baltimore was born. In September, 1999, it became an official nonprofit entity and Wattenberg left the bar.

How's he feel now?

"I wish I had had better foresight as to how it would grow," he says. "I also know that the more I do this, the less I know."

Wattenberg often drops comments like this, not immediately transparent. Asked one torrid recent weekend, as he sweats in his shop sorting through a Himalaya of donations, to describe day-to-day operations, he says, "Around here 90 percent of the work takes 10 percent of the time; 10 percent of the work takes 90 percent of the time."

Wattenberg actually looks at every book, weeds out pornography, books about bombmaking, also photo albums, diaries, books he suspects have been mistakenly given, and old first aid books because the treatments they offer are out of date.

He's a filter.

How far has he advanced in eight years? In the beginning he gave a couple hundred books from his van, then he assembled about 150,000 in his cramped basement. Driven out by a rent increase, he made his current home in a dodgy part of town on a skinny street with a preposterously bucolic name: Vineyard Lane. From there he dispenses 30,000 books a week – more than a million a year.

Wattenberg is aware that his commitment has left him little time to broaden his life – maybe find a girlfriend or think about getting married, in that order. "Though I still love the books, some days I wonder why I do this. My only contact in life is The Book Thing and my cat."

"But," he adds, "This is the time in my life, if ever there was a time in my life, to do this."

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