The Baltimore 'Book Thing' is give and take

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

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Does Russell Wattenberg love books? And how!

"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.

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"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.

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

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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