Nov 20, 2015
In an old warehouse with a leaky roof, Russell Wattenberg and a small army of volunteers sorted books on Nov. 11 at The Book Thing, Inc., while the Elvis Costello song “Every Day I Write the Book” played on the radio.
“Next they’ll be playing (The Beatles’) ‘Paperback Writer,'” he joked.
Wattenberg, 43, of Charles Village, is the burly, bearded proprietor of The Book Thing, a 15-year-old, Waverly-based business that is open only on weekends, but including Christmas, Easter, Armageddon and the Rapture, if they fall on a Saturday or Sunday, according to a posted sign.
At The Book Thing, very little money changes hands. The premise is as simple as it is unique: Bring in as many books as you want, for which you will not be paid, and take out as many as you want, for which you will not be charged.
Unsolicited donations and rentals of books as props for locally filmed movies and TV shows, like “House of Cards,” are The Book Thing’s main sources of revenue. That money covers utility bills, building maintenance costs, insurance, the rental of five nearby garages for storing books, and the annual $12,000 salary that Wattenberg pays himself — “much to my wife’s chagrin,” he said.
The couple lives in a painted-lady row house on Guilford Avenue. His wife, the breadwinner, works for “the government,” which is all he’ll say about that.
Wattenberg occasionally sells rare books, either ones that he gets inadvertently and recognizes as valuable, or from people looking for a tax write-off or a way to support The Book Thing without having to donate money.
He showed a diminutive book printed in 1640, called “Joseph’s Party-Colored Coat,” derived from the biblical story about Joseph’s “coat of many colors.”
Just like a library or a bookstore, The Book Thing is organized in sections, ranging from Religion to Art to History to Personal Finance to Mystery to Russell Recommends. An estimated 800-1,000 people come on the average weekend, some lining up Saturday mornings before it opens, to browse The Book Thing’s four public rooms for everything from Danielle Steele novels to huge dictionaries to “Oddball” offerings (that’s actually a category), like “The Lawyer’s Guide to the Hereafter” or “I’d Like to Buy a Bowel.”
The more interesting the title, the more likely it is to be teased on The Book Thing’s website, www.bookthing.org.
“This one’s going up on the website shortly,” Wattenberg said, showing a book titled, “Problems of Bisexuality As Reflected in Circumcision.”
Sign-out sheets ask people to write their first name and how many books they took out. Wattenberg prefers that people remain anonymous so that prying eyes won’t question them taking a copy of the Quran, or a book about abortion. He keeps the sheets for his records because, for business purposes, “It’s the only way I can prove what I do.”
The Book Thing is eye-opening for people such as Brittany Whitworth and her husband, Matt LeBlanc, of Perry Hall. They heard about it from their aunt and roamed the building happily with their three children Nov. 14. The youngest, Tylee Ralston, 2, pushed a box filled with children’s books, which Wattenberg said are The Book Thing’s hottest commodity.
“This place is amazing,” said Whitworth, 27. “I’ve never seen a place like this.”
“Look at this,” said LeBlanc, 31, showing his wife a cookbook called “Chicken Wings.”
“This is a treasure for anybody,” said Larry Temple, of Northwood, a retired salesman, who sometimes comes both Saturdays and Sundays. He left Nov. 14 with 13 books, including “Heart of Darkness,” by Joseph Conrad.
“I’ve never read it,” he said. In fact, he said he doesn’t read a lot of the books he takes. He just likes collecting them.
“I have a love affair with them,” he said.
Wattenberg fell into his line of work. In the late 1990s, he ran a downtown bar, where public school teachers used to come in for happy hour and complain about an unfunded mandate from the school system at the time to stock a certain number of books in their classrooms. He began filling his van with books that he bought on the cheap at various book sales and giving them away to teachers.
“I couldn’t walk past a copy of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ for 10 cents without grabbing it,” he said. “It started from there.”
He opened The Book Thing in the late 1990s and gained nonprofit status in 1999. “I never had the conscious idea to start it,” he said. “If I had thought about it, I never would have done it.”
The next year, he won an Open Society Institute-Baltimore fellowship and grant, given to social entrepreneurs who have ideas for businesses that better people’s lives. He operated The Book Thing in a 950-square-foot basement with no water or heat, in the rear of 2645 N. Charles St., until 2005, when he made a high-risk investment by borrowing $210,000 from a supporter of The Book Thing to make a down payment on a $260,000, 7,000-square-foot former warehouse in the 3000 block of Vineyard Lane, with heat and four bathrooms.
But his mortgage was amortized over 30 years and due in three. He also had to take out a $300,000 life insurance policy on himself, with the lender as the beneficiary, in case he defaulted on the loan.
Wattenberg paid off the loan in 2008 and the mortgage in 2012, so he owns the building outright. He recently raised $20,000 for a new roof, but it still leaks, he said.
Virtually all of his staff are volunteers, a mix of retirees, high school students earning community service hours, and college students sentenced to community service for such misdemeanors as violating open container laws.
“The only thing you can say in general about volunteers is they like books,” Wattenberg said.
There’s no front desk or receptionist; the phone number is to the cellphone in his T-shirt pocket. There’s no inventory, either; Wattenberg has only a vague idea of how many books are there, and there’s no staff to help a visitor look up a book on a computer.
On Wednesdays and weekends, volunteers come in to sort books by categories and to stamp the inside of each book with the words, “Not for resale. This is a free book. Bookthing.org.
How volunteers sort books sometimes depends on how they think, or their politics. For example, liberal volunteers tend to file liberal filmmaker and author Michael Moore under “Politics” and conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh under “Humor.” Conservative volunteers do the opposite.
“It’s always interesting to see who shelves what books where,” Wattenberg said.
The main sorting room, behind a padlocked gate to the parking lot, is stacked with boxes of books brought in By Book Thing lovers or by people who are moving, downsizing or holding estate sales after a death in the family. Wattenberg and his volunteers separate and discard wet, moldy books or books that smell of cat urine (“We get a lot of that,” he said).
They also separate out tchotchkes, toys and games, dipping bowls and old cellphones that come mixed in with the boxes, probably because they were sitting on bookshelves and got mixed in when the owners packed the books, he speculated. But they also find birth and death certificates, love letters, “Dear John” letters, checks, slices of salami, and “esquire” nameplates for attorneys, many of which appear to have been used as bookmarks.
“You never know what you’re going to find,” Wattenberg said. “It could be a peed-on romance book or an Edith Wharton collection signed by Henry James.”
Wattenberg once found a set of personal diaries in a box of books. He tracked down the man who brought the books in and called him to see if he wanted the diaries back.
The man assured Wattenberg he did not want them back, but the man’s wife, who had written the diaries, overheard her husband and could be heard berating him in the background.
“She was here in like 10 minutes,” to pick up the diaries, Wattenberg said.
CDs and DVDs also are often mixed in, and are placed in their own sections for the taking, as are paperbacks, he said.
Although he no longer pays mortgage, “We’re still struggling,” Wattenberg said, explaining that other than his salary, every dollar earned is spent on upkeep or overhead costs. He saves money where he can, whether it’s brewing a pot of hazelnut coffee that was on clearance at the Giant supermarket, or buying a less expensive brand of book stampers, although they’re falling apart, he said.
In past few years, more books have been dropped off than taken out and he’s had to rent five garages nearby for storage. Books sit in boxes until there’s room for them on the shelves.
Everything goes in waves. In the summer he gets slammed with books coming in.
Not all books taken out are for reading; some are used for art projects. One woman decorated the trim on her accountant father’s office walls with pages of a 1970s accounting book.
Value is in the eye of the beholder. A street directory from the 90s would be worthless but one from the 60s might have value for genealogists or people researching historical boundaries.
Regulars line up on Saturday morning, 40 or 50 deep, before the book thing opens, many after going to the nearby 32nd Street Farmers Market.
Homeless people come, too. Wattenberg said one man told him, “The cops won’t hassle you if you’re sitting on a park bench reading a book.”
For the volunteers, working at The Book Thing is an homage to what Wattenberg has created and a chance to do what they love.
“For me, it’s a form of community service, and I like books,” said Tasha Carter, a minister from Ellicott City.
Retirees Carol James and Kris Crouthamel come from Catonsville to volunteer and get free books.
“I search for books every time I’m here,” said Crouthamel, a former Baltimore City public school teacher. “I wish I had known about this when I was in the school system. What a wonderful resource.”
“We love The Book Thing,” said James, a former pharmacy assistant. “And we can’t believe more people don’t come to take books.”
After more than 15 years, Wattenberg is trying not to get burned out.
“Sometimes it gets old,” he conceded. But the books and their variety keep him going.
He’s an avid reader of everything from the history of jazz to the life story of Louisa May Alcott, but never buys books at Barnes and Noble.
“Number one, I can’t afford it,” he said. “Number two, there’s too many undiscovered books. No matter what it is, it’ll come through here eventually.”
But finding time to read is another story.
“The funny thing is, the more books I give away, the less time I have to read.”