Book Binge

Russell Wattenberg ’96 deserves a green thumbs-up for his recycling efforts over the past 13 years.

At his nonprofit, The Book Thing of Baltimore, he gives away roughly 15,000 books each week (that’s about 780,000 a year). And he refuses payment. Each item is stamped “not for resale—this is a free book.” Though there’s a limit—you can’t take more than 150,000 books at one time, his website winkingly notes.

A mountain of some 250,000 books and magazines is shelved and categorized in a downtown warehouse. Browsing is encouraged; though much like the Ithaca Friends of the Library book sale (which Wattenberg used to frequent), there’s no place to sit and read. But you can bring your lunch.

“The Thing,” as Wattenberg calls it, is open Saturdays and Sundays from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and draws about a thousand people each weekend. Some pop in for 10 minutes while waiting for a bus; others stay for hours.

The donated books flow in from individuals, schools, bookstores, and presses. It’s a full-time job for Wattenberg, his small staff, and his many volunteers just to sort them. “There are always some wonderful mistakes made,” he says. “The Road Less Traveled ends up in transportation; The Donner Party lands in cooking.”

Someone’s personal library can reveal a life history, Wattenberg notes, from college copies of Hermann Hesse to manuals on dating, wedding, finance, and home maintenance. And from famous donors, Wattenberg discovered that Anne Tyler was learning to change the oil in her car, and Walter Cronkite used Internet for Dummies.

All books and magazines are welcome—from Crafting with Cat Hair to A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband (dated 1917)—so long as they’re not moldy or wet or missing pages. Dangerously outdated CPR manuals are culled. But Wattenberg OK’d a dental supply catalog from the Civil War era, “though some of the stuff in it looks like it shouldn’t be anywhere near a human mouth.”

The books are taken by weekend browsers of all ages, but the greatest bulk goes out to “feeders,” people who regularly redistribute books to schools, libraries, bookmobiles, veterans’ hospitals, prisons, and soldiers overseas. This makes Wattenberg happiest. It’s how he got started.

Postgraduation, he was bartending in Baltimore, where Friday’s happy hour would bring in frustrated young teachers who lacked books for their students. So Wattenberg began taking some of his tip money and buying used books for them. Without really planning it, Wattenberg—a veteran reader and packrat—continued gathering surplus books and giving them to people who wanted them. From a dank basement the casual enterprise progressed, in 2005, to the current warehouse and nonprofit status.

Since 1999, The Book Thing of Baltimore has been Wattenberg’s mission and obsession; recently married, he claims his wife says he’s really wedded to “The Thing.” He finances his philanthropy by selling a tiny percentage of the donated books to rare book dealers; he also rents books to movies and condo realtors as set dressing (see The Wire and House of Cards).

Wattenberg, who sees himself as a “middleman,” had always imagined he’d own some sort of business. What Wattenberg wanted from college, he says, was to get his questions answered; he was delighted that “everywhere I turned there was an expert in a different field.” While at IC, Wattenberg was endlessly curious; he read omnivorously, forcing himself to stay away from the library and its siren call to get his assigned work done.

So now at The Book Thing—“like a kid at Christmas”—Wattenberg never has to leave the library.

Visit The Book Thing.