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A Rare Corporate Entity: A Business That Does Not Seek Profit - 2002-04-05


Some people start businesses in hopes of becoming rich; others just hope to make ends meet. But Russell Wattenberg is determined his business will yield no money at all.

The sign on the door outside the basement of his row house in Baltimore, Maryland reads: "The Book Thing."

Inside you will find stacks of books, shelves of books, boxes of books, about 250,000 books in all, arranged in general categories like "Psychology, "Mystery," "Children," "Cooking."

Twenty-nine-year-old Russell Wattenberg, owner, founder, and proprietor of "The Book Thing" has a rubber stamped message he puts into each book. It reads "NOT FOR RESALE. THIS IS A FREE BOOK!"

Still, he said, he has trouble finding customers. "The funniest thing is it is so difficult to convince people that the books are, in fact, free that I am not trying to convert them to a religion. I don't want money. I am not trying to sell them a credit card or anything else," Mr. Wattenberg said.

The Book Thing started about six years ago when Wattenberg was bartending at a Baltimore pub.

"A lot of teachers would come in for Friday Happy Hour, and they'd all complain that they did not have enough books in their classrooms, so I would take 10 percent of my tip money each week and go to thrift stores and book sales and buy books to give to them," Mr. Wattenberg said.

Why take his own money and buy books for other people? Because books are Russell Wattenberg's passion. "I love to read. They have always been around in my life. It is something very comforting and empowering, having the books around," Mr. Wattenberg said.

Soon other people heard about what he was doing and started bringing him books, hundreds of thousands of books. He began distributing them to the public from his basement apartment.

Then the whole neighborhood got involved. Volunteers built bookshelves to house the books. Neighbors raised funds to pay Wattenberg a small salary, so he could stop working extra jobs.

In the course of the typical weekend, Russell Wattenberg said, The Book Thing gives away about 10,000 books, and takes in about the same amount.

"There is one elderly lady who comes through and every week on her way to church she drops off her two books two paperback books and every Sunday after church she comes back and picks up two more. That's her reading for the week," Mr. Wattenberg said. As for Russell Wattenberg, he is happily surrounded by books and tells people his is a rare business indeed one that encourages shoplifting.

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