There’s no such thing as a free lunch – books are something else again

Chicago Tribune
April 25, 2002
|By Patrick T. Reardon, Tribune staff reporter.

BALTIMORE — It would be too strong to say that Russell Wattenberg is frustrated. He’s too phlegmatic — and too quirkily successful — for that.

Five years ago, in a flash of quixotic idealism, Wattenberg began giving away books. He was a bartender at the time at a tavern frequented by schoolteachers. Off hours, he’d scout yard sales and thrift stores, pick up hundreds of books for a song and then tell the teachers to go out to his battered van and take whatever they wanted.

This year, he expects to give away half a million used and new volumes to anyone who wants them.

“I love books,” says the slow-talking, slow-moving Wattenberg, a hulking teddy bear of a man, with a thick brown beard and a rumpled air. “I just can’t walk by a copy of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or Plato’s ‘Republic’ for 10 cents and not buy it. It’s the old Jewish thing: Such a deal!”

Wattenberg, a non-practicing Jew who was born in Brooklyn, the son of a salesman and a dietician, is sitting slouched in his battered chair, his feet up on a cluttered desk, in The Book Thing of Baltimore, the basement space that, in the spring of 2000, replaced his van as the center of his book giveaway operation.

Located in an aging apartment building a few blocks south of Johns Hopkins University and funded by grants from philanthropies, The Book Thing has the funky look and feel of a modest, well-organized neighborhood used bookstore.

The bookshelves, categorized by subject, are jammed but not chaotic. There’s room to move around, but no space for a coffee bar. And the titles are an eclectic mix, ranging in fiction, for example, from Danielle Steel to Tom Clancy, and from Jane Hamilton to Thomas Wolfe.

The Book Thing — motto: “Be greedy!” — is only open on Saturdays and Sundays, and visitors leave with some 10,000 books a weekend. “When people aren’t taking enough books, I start yelling,” Wattenberg says, as he lights up yet another Marlboro.

Nonetheless, the total number of volumes stored in the basement, in Wattenberg’s van, in some nearby garages and in his apartment, has already reached 250,000 and continues to grow. That’s because, each week, Wattenberg and some 30 volunteers unload thousands of volumes, donated by publishers, stores, libraries and people who need to get rid of books but don’t want to trash them.

But that’s where the twinge of frustration comes in for Wattenberg.

Getting the word out

As word of his operation, officially a tax-exempt charity, has spread beyond Baltimore, books have begun arriving from across the nation.

“A lot of people are shipping me books,” he says. “They’d rather donate books than donate funds. But they’ll spend a lot of money to send the books here.”

A recent example, he says, was a Pennsylvania couple who sent The Book Thing two paperbacks by priority mail — at a cost of about $6.

“They could have given away those two books in their own community. They could have just left them at a bus stop,” Wattenberg says.

“They missed the whole point.”

In all honesty, though, it must be admitted that, in the profit-and-gain world of contemporary American life, Wattenberg’s operation is, well, unusual. Indeed, the charm of The Book Thing — the wonder of it — is the extent to which it runs counter to cultural expectations.

For one thing, there’s no catch — no need to sign up for anything, no mailing list to go on. The books are given away free. Indeed, as each book goes out the door, it’s stamped: “THIS IS A FREE BOOK.”

For another, there’s only one rule: On any given day, no person can take from The Book Thing more than 150,000 volumes. It’s strictly enforced.

Service to everyone

And, for still another, this is a service, Wattenberg says, that is open to anyone, to the whole community. “If Bill Gates walked in here and took 1,000 books, I’d help him load them in his car,” Wattenberg says.

Like many book lovers, the 29-year-old Wattenberg can’t remember when his affair with the written word began. But he does tell this story: “I went to a new school for the 2nd grade. They were showing us around, and, in the library, I asked where they kept the Agatha Christie books. And I got ticked off because they didn’t have any. I’d read all the ones my mother had at home.”

While The Book Thing seems the epitome of altruism, Wattenberg says his involvement in the operation is “totally selfish,” since he gets first dibs on the books donated.

In recent weeks, he has pulled out and read a biography of Pulitzer Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, Jack London’s semi-autobiographical novel “Martin Eden” and “The Man With the Red and Green Eyes,” an autobiography of a traffic engineer that, in passing, explained why Charles Street — the avenue outside The Book Thing’s building — is a one-way street today. (The reason: political clout.)

Funding for Wattenberg’s operation has been a hit-and-miss thing. Foundation grants helped the operation rent the Charles Street basement space, and one grant paid him a salary of $36,000 a year.

That grant is running out this month, but Wattenberg, who is single, doesn’t act concerned.

Things will work out, he says. Wattenberg wants to get The Book Thing established more solidly, with its own building, a decent bank account and a staff and volunteers to run it. Then, he will leave Baltimore as he arrived in 1995 — on a whim.

“I’ll put all my worldly possessions (including Miss Marple, his cat) in the back of my van and hit the road,” he says, “and wherever I land — Cincinnati, Austin, Seattle or Zurich (I’ve always wanted to visit Zurich) — I’ll do this again.”

Giving away hundreds of thousands of books a year, he says, “has made me damned happy. I can’t foresee myself doing anything else.”

Popular Things

Books Most Frequently Donated to The Book Thing of Baltimore (as determined unscientifically by Book Thing proprietor Russell Wattenberg):

(1) “Iacocca” by Lee Iacocca with William Novak

(2) “Passages” by Gail Sheehy

(3) “Megatrends” by John Naisbitt

(4) “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” by Joanne Greenberg

(5) “Future Shock” by Alvin Toffler

(6) “What Color Is Your Parachute” by Richard Nelson Bolles

(7) “The Silent Passage: Menopause” by Gail Sheehy

(8) Readers Digest Condensed Books

(9) Harlequin romances

(10) “Iacocca” by Lee Iacocca with William Novak

Oddest Titles Seen in The Book Thing (as determined by Wattenberg):

(1) “The Official Alien Abductee’s Handbook” by Joseph Tripician

(2) “How to Make Love While Conscious” by Guy Kettelhack

(3) “Handbook of Underwater Acoustics”

(4) “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler

(5) “Psychological Effects of Preventing Nuclear War”

(6) “Headhunting in the Solomon Islands” by Caroline Mytinger

(7) “Everyone Remembers the Elephants in Pink Tutus” by Mary Maloney Cronin and Suzanne Caplan

(8) “The Screwing of the Average Man” by David Hapgood

(9) “1978 Oahu Bus Schedule”

(10) “Advice From a Failure” by Jo Coudert

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