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The Price Is Right for These Books

A former bartender gives away about 25,000 volumes a week, and thousands of people visit his store on weekends. He hopes to expand to other cities.

November 10, 2002|Reagan Haynes | Associated Press Writer

BALTIMORE — Bartenders know that people complain at happy hour. They hear patrons chatter about co-workers, office politics or, in the case of a group of teachers at Dougherty's Pub, the book shortage at their school.

They nod and pour drinks.

But Russell Wattenberg listened and started putting aside 10% of his tips. He scavenged at thrift shops, used bookstores and yard sales, and gave his finds to his customers. When neighbors heard about the beefy bartender donating books to teachers, they dug out more from their attics and brought them in.

"People heard and they donated more books, and it just kind of grew and grew and grew until I quit the bar to do it full-time," Wattenberg said. "Now I'm giving away about 20,000 to 25,000 books a week and there's about a thousand people coming through each weekend."

So was born the Book Thing of Baltimore, a nonprofit organization that gives books to whoever wants them. It is run by Wattenberg -- a chain-smoking, wry man of 30 who says he cries whenever he reads one of his favorites, "Of Mice and Men."

After receiving international attention for the store in the Charles Village neighborhood near Johns Hopkins University, Wattenberg hopes to expand to other cities. He's received calls from people interested in bringing the Book Thing to Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle and Washington, but said he's still waiting for the right offer.

The cellar he's been operating from for the past 2 1/2 years features a sign screaming "Free Books" that directs customers to the back of the rented house. The store is packed with shelf-to-shelf books. Spaces are carved out for different genres -- pop fiction is the most crowded. Boxes of more books litter the unfinished floor and, in front of those, stacks of yet more books. Add shoppers to the mix and there's not much room to move around.

But 250,000 selections make it worthwhile.

Wattenberg accepts any book -- any book without mold.

"Strawberries in the 21st Century?" His shop has it. "Advice From a Failure" has passed through his hands.

Wattenberg wants your 20-year-old National Geographics that are collecting dust.

"There's not a book that comes in that nobody wants," he said. "There are tax tables from the 1960s that some art student will use for decoupage."

"The Waring Blender Cookbook" is snapped up by two Johns Hopkins students who giggle over the title.

Bill Johnson, a regular at the Book Thing, brings his unwanted books here. He walks inside and pulls a book called "Wise Women" off a shelf and tucks it under his arm.

"I see piles of books in the trash; a lot of them are good books," Johnson said, almost incredulously.

Because he spends so much time picking up books, soliciting books and sorting books, Wattenberg can keep the Book Thing open only on weekends.

Each morning, he arrives to empty a 24-hour drop-off bin in front of the little store, which is filled to overflowing. He weeds through the books. He pulls out high-value contributions that will benefit the Book Thing, such as a first-edition "Grapes of Wrath" that sold for $1,200 at an auction.

He removes books that he and his 30 regular volunteers might want to read, knowing that most will eventually return to the rotation. On Wednesdays, his helpers crowd in and sort through the rest of the week's donations.

Funding for the Book Thing comes from fellowships and private donors, as well as high-value books. All contribute to Wattenberg's $36,000 salary. (He's the only paid employee of the Book Thing.)

Although he jokes that it'll ruin his reputation, Wattenberg said his main motivation for running a free bookstore is to give books to people who can't afford to buy them at the thrift store.

"The more means and money someone has, the lighter their reading is," he said. "But when people aren't where they want to be in life, those are the people who want to better themselves. They thirst for knowledge and learning."

But money is tight, and Wattenberg recently laid himself off after a failed transmission in the store's ancient van diminished already dwindling funds. But he wouldn't have it any other way.

"People who give the books are happy to have a place to give them, and people who get them are happy to get them," Wattenberg said. "And I get to be around books all day."

On this day, he intercepts a couple threading their way through boxes of books.

"Hey there! Are you folks new here?" When they nod their assent, Wattenberg gestures to piles of books stacked on the pavement: "Everything over here is free. Everything inside is also free. Greed is encouraged."

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