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The 'Book Thing:' Baltimore's  Book Giveaway - 2002-07-31

The East Coast city of Baltimore, Maryland is known for its offbeat traditions and unconventional spirit, just the kind of city where you might expect to find a used book store that urges you to take as many books as you want for free. It's called the Book Thing, and it's become a popular meeting place for people who want to acquire books, or give away books, or do some of both. Nancy Beardsley reports.

The Book Thing is located in the basement of an old Baltimore row house, and you enter by the back door. But it's easy to spot from the street. A handpainted sign saying "Free Books" stands on the curb, and boxes and bags of books form a pathway to the door. They're new donations waiting to be sorted by volunteers.

Volunteer:"Law, fiction, home improvement, more home improvement, art, physics. You never know what you're going to find in here."
Beardsley:"Has this been a good day for donations?"
Volunteer:"It's been a really busy day. We had a donation of 200 boxes from a school down in Washington, D.C. So we've been really overwhelmed."

Step inside, and you'll see books stacked on shelves and piled on the floor, seeming to go out almost as fast as they come in. Russell Wattenberg, the man behind the idea, sits at a front desk, stamping books with the words "Not for Resale. This is a Free Book."

Wattenberg: "When I was managing a bar, I had a lot of teachers come in for Friday night happy hour and they'd all complain to their bartender, me, about not having enough books for their classroom. So I started picking up books at thrift stores and used book sales and giving them away to teachers. And then other people started hearing about what I was doing, so they'd give me books they didn't want any more, and it just kind of grew and grew and grew. I quit the job about two and a half years ago to do this full time. I've gotten a little bit of funding here and there. I'm 29, no wife, no kids. So now I'm giving away 10,000 books every week."

"Hi, welcome to the 'Book Thing.' Come on in, all the books are free. You can take as many as you like. We encourage greed. We've got boxes outside. You can take a box, but any box you take, you've got to fill up."

Wattenberg: "Saturday mornings, I've found no matter how early I get here there's always a line waiting for me. They all help me get set up for the day before they start going after books. All the regulars know each other. All the teachers compare notes on which school is which. It's really like a little community."

"I'm Doctor Marcus, and this is a bonanza for poor people who have minds they want to use. I'm particularly interested in art books, but I have to borrow a car to get here. The proprietor once in a while knows my areas of interest, and he'll sometimes set aside books for me, which is greatly appreciated. Once we got 76 issues of 'Antiques Magazine' going back 30 some years, which I use for research."

Wattenberg: "That gentleman also brings us usually a few apples or pears from a farmer's market he goes to. There's a group of people from the neighborhood who come in. There's one lady who comes in to get cookbooks. She'll let me know how each recipe was after she used it. There's an elderly woman who on her way to church each Sunday drops off two paperback books and on her way back from church she picks up two, and that's her reading for the week. It's also become a place where if somebody has a relative or a friend coming into town to visit, this is one of the tourist spots where they take them. So it's really become part of Baltimore."

"My name is Laura Geralo. My father and I come here, and I like Louisa May Alcott, like 'Little Women' and 'Little Men,' and I found a Louisa May Alcott. It's back in my box."

"My name is Jessica Pavis. And I heard about this from my friend Laura and her father. And I like reading a lot about history, so I have some biographies. Ann Frank is my favorite and I've found a book about her, so I'm very delighted about that."

"My name is Angelika. This is the first time I came here and I really like it. I'm tutoring a kid in reading, and I found a bunch of books for him. And there are even games. I've gotten crosswords. You can get anything. I have two boxes back there now."

Wattenberg: "You can come in and take two books. You can come in and take a 1,000 books. It doesn't make any difference. If Bill Gates came in, he can take free books too. We give whatever we have to anybody who wants it. Some of the people who come in have never even known someone who owned a book, let alone had one to read. And what my plan is, is once this is up and running in Baltimore, then I'll load my van with all my worldly possessions, hit the road, and wherever I end up, I'll start another one all over again. We've gotten e-mails from all over the world wanting to start up their own Book Thing, and the best advice I give is just give away books. When you're at a bus stop, leave one on the bench. Leave one in a taxi cab. Leave one on a plane. You don't need an organization to give away a book. You just need a book to give away a book."

Russell Wattenberg is the only paid staff member at the Book Thing. It survives through individual contributions, neighborhood support, and the occasional donation of an unusually valuable book. Those are put up for auction. A recent first edition of a book by Ernest Hemingway sold for $450. Then there are the unusual books, books with titles like The Story of Margarine, The Naming of the Telescope, or Elephants in Pink Tutus. They may have little monetary value, but they're the kind of rare find that makes the Book Thing a treasure hunt for readers.