Story: Bailey O’Malia
Multimedia: Jalisa Hill
Tucked away on a side street in Baltimore is a disheveled building known as The Book Thing, inside you will find thousands of books, all of them absolutely free to whoever wants them.
But there is a catch.
You can only take 150,000 books per person, per day, according to The Book Thing’s founder Russell Wattenberg, who said he has a hard time convincing people the books are free.
Erin Kenney, who participated in a book drive for her high school’s Invisible Children program contacted The Book Thing to find out how many books she could take.
“They actually asked me if I was bringing a tractor trailer,” said Kenney laughing. “I wasn’t, but I filled my entire car with books for the kids in Uganda.”
The Book Thing’s mission is to “put unwanted books into the hands of those who want them,” according to Wattenberg. It works somewhat like a co-op. Patrons can donate their unwanted books to The Book Thing and/or take as many books as they would like. There are no required trades or donations.
In fact, Wattenberg doesn’t want any monetary donations. “I’d rather see the money go to a soup kitchen or homeless shelter,” he said.
The Book Thing, “like all great ideas, began in a bar.” Dougherty’s Pub, to be exact.
The Baltimore bar was frequented by teachers in need of books for their students. The teachers need, combined with Wattenberg’s inability to pass up a classic novel, led to The Book Thing.
“I started giving away the books I had to the teachers, and other people started to come in and bring me books,” said Wattenberg. “I would take 10 percent of my tip money each week and use it to buy used books for the kids.”
He stored the books in his van, and at the end of each week teachers would come by to collect the books.
“People would ask me, ‘Russ, what did you do this weekend?’ and I would say ‘I was doing the book thing,’” said Wattenberg.
In 1999, “doing the book thing” became “The Book Thing” when the organization was declared a nonprofit. The Book Thing upgraded from Wattenberg’s van and set up permanent residence in an old building at 3001 Vineyard Lane in Baltimore. And shortly after, Wattenberg quit his job as a bartender to tend books full time.
“Partially it was just getting too big, but also it came down to did I want to sell booze or give away books,” Wattenberg said.
Patrons and volunteers of The Book Thing are grateful that Wattenberg chose to pursue a career in literature.
“All individuals need knowledge, and this is place that provides that,” said Michael Williams Bey, a volunteer at The Book Thing.
But Bey is obtaining knowledge from the books in a different way. As a former addict, Bey sees volunteering as a form of therapy, an opportunity and a second chance.
“This is my way of giving back to people after taking and being abusive all my life,” said Bey. “It shows another side of me, a side I never thought was there.”
(The Book Thing of Baltimore is located at 3001 Vineyard Lane Baltimore, MD 21218 and is open every Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
Since volunteering at The Book Thing, Bey said he has found out what it means to help another person. He enjoys interacting with the types of people he never thought he would be able to help, “You just learn so much from people, from helping them instead of taking.”
Sheena Black of Baltimore appreciates The Book Thing because it is accessible to everyone.
“Books are very expensive; I like the books here because they are free, I like to read about history and anthropology and here I can learn as much as I want,” she said. “You can also find rare books here you can’t find anywhere else.”
Like his customers, Wattenberg enjoys the surprise inside each box of books, “Books that I never thought would have been published or even written, you never know who or what will come in next.”
The shelves of The Book Thing are filled with diversity—basically, if it comes in print you can find it at The Book Thing. There are books on foreign language, philosophy, fashion, parenting, music, dance, science, computers and the list goes on.
There’s something for everyone at The Book Thing, which is one of the reasons Wattenberg loves his job.
“It’s [The Book Thing] one of the few places where everybody in Baltimore has a reason to go,” explained Wattenberg. “For people who don’t have anything they can come here and get free books, the people who have plenty of money or whatever, come here to drop off books.
“It’s a place where a professor, a student and a cashier at the university cafeteria will all be standing in the same room doing the same thing. Two people who have read the same book share a common experience, they have something in common and something to talk about.”
Not surprisingly, Wattenberg’s favorite book focuses on community.
“I would recommend Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, it’s a kid’s book,” said Wattenberg. “Partially for nostalgia reasons, and it’s a great story about the power of community and finding creative solutions to the problems.”
A creative solution. What a perfect way to describe The Book Thing.