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The Give-and-Take At the Book Thing
Exchange Is a Revolving Door for Readers

By Emily Messner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2004; Page C01

BALTIMORE -- Early one morning a couple of winters ago, a homeless man scanned the spines of hundreds of books set in neat rows outside the Book Thing of Baltimore. As he searched for a good book to kill time before heading to a nearby shelter, a sparkling gold Mercedes-Benz SUV pulled up to the curb. Out stepped a fifty-something woman wearing a full-length mink coat and carrying two or three Neiman Marcus bags full of paperbacks.

"It was just so cliche," recalls Book Thing founder Russell Wattenberg. "It's like one of those things where if I saw this on a TV show, I'd say they were, like, stretching it."

The paperbacks were a donation to the Book Thing, a novel kind of exchange where thousands of books are given away each weekend. The woman wanted a receipt, so Wattenberg ducked into the crowded basement from which the Book Thing operates and wrote one up. When he emerged, he says, the wealthy woman and the destitute man were deep in conversation.

"The two of them are talking about who's better: Ludlum or Grisham, Scott Turow." Wattenberg watched as the woman began pulling books out of her Neiman Marcus bags, "and she says, 'This was real good' and 'If you like him, you're going to like this.' " Even after Wattenberg handed over the receipt, their conversation carried on for another 20 minutes.

"That's the whole thing with the Book Thing," Wattenberg says. "All I am is a middleman. The people have books. . . . They give them to me, they're happy to have a place to see them go somewhere, and the people that get the books are happy to get the books."

Wattenberg, perpetually clad in jeans and a black Book Thing T-shirt, still has the accent of his home town, Brooklyn. He was on his way to Florida nearly a decade ago in a tan Dodge van when he stopped for gas in Baltimore. He decided to stay.

While bartending at Dougherty's Pub seven years ago, Wattenberg overheard teachers at Friday happy hour lamenting their need for books. He began taking 10 percent of his tips each week to buy books for them at flea markets and used-book stores, he says. He would give the teachers the keys to the van and tell them to take whatever they wanted.

And so the Book Thing was born. It eventually incorporated and moved into a 950-square-foot basement at 27th and Charles streets near Johns Hopkins University about four years ago. Wattenberg, 32, says he now works full time at the operation, paying himself an annual salary of about $18,000.

Some of that money comes from donations from individuals, but most is collected through the sale of rare books. Wattenberg says he goes through all the books that come in and sets aside those he thinks might be especially valuable. If they are, he sells them at auctions or on rare-book Web sites and uses the profits to pay the Book Thing's rent, electric bill and other expenses. "One-tenth of 1 percent of the books that come in here get sold to fund giving away the rest of them," he says.

It's a bare-bones operation: The basement has no heat or running water, no bathroom, and most of the light comes from the hanging light bulbs in each alcove. The Book Thing's annual budget hovers around $50,000, according to tax records. That's a low figure considering the thousands of books the nonprofit gives away.

Inside the basement and scattered on the concrete outside are tens of thousands of books -- all donated, all free. Shelves line nearly every inch of wall space; books that couldn't be crammed onto the overburdened shelves lean against them in stacks several feet high. Every Saturday and Sunday, Wattenberg throws open the door to the public -- everyone is welcome and they can take away as much reading material as they like.

The only condition is that each book must be marked with the "THIS IS A FREE BOOK" stamp. "This way, we don't have people who are book dealers come in, haul away a bunch of books and sell them," Wattenberg explains. It is also a useful tool in keeping count of the books taken since everyone has to stop at the door and get each book stamped.

Wattenberg estimates that 20,000 books come in each week and 20,000 are taken out. Many are picked up by the weekend visitors or given away at major events such as the Baltimore Book Festival and ArtScape, but "the majority of books that go out are going to community centers, literacy programs, schools, libraries, prisons," he says.

What book turns up most at the Book Thing? " 'Iacocca,' " Wattenberg says without hesitation, explaining that any book that was a huge seller but had little staying power is likely to make its way, en masse, to this basement.

Children's books, cookbooks and "the hard subjects -- math, science, accounting" -- go the fastest, he says. "People take books to learn a skill like accounting. They can't afford to go to school; this is how they're getting their education."

On a recent Saturday, industrial engineer Waithaka Mukira is among those at the Book Thing. He will be moving with his family back to his native Kenya to be with his parents after 20 years in the United States, so he's looking for "something to keep us busy," he says. He comes to the book hub each Saturday, leaving with boxes of novels, science texts, even a few farming books for his dad. The science books are for Mukira's wife, Dawn, a high school math teacher who plans to work as a tutor in Kenya.

Packing novels into an overstuffed cardboard box, Mukira looks around at the bounty and says, "It is my heaven, I can tell you that."

Paul Britt is helping to start a library for children with sickle cell anemia at Baltimore's Sinai Hospital. He says he wants to provide "something for them to do to take their minds off what's going on."

A few shelves over, six or seven teenage girls from a Baltimore group home crowd around the family and parenting section. One yanks a paperback off a shelf and says excitedly, "Ooh! Who wanted to read 'A Child Called 'It'?" A redhead thrusts her hand in the air and shouts, "Me!" She grabs the book and tosses it into her box.

Abishek Chitlangia, 23, picks through piles of forgotten fiction. His friends consider visits to the Book Thing a ritual: "Anytime we come here, we have to pick up a book -- it's like when you go to a shrine and you have to touch the feet of an idol," he says. "This is a beautiful place."

But the Book Thing is in jeopardy. According to Wattenberg, the new owner of the building where it is housed raised the rent on the basement from $235 to $525 per month. Because the new lease is month-to-month, that figure could keep rising.

"Right now we're looking for funding from anybody we can get it from to purchase a building," Wattenberg says. In addition to the rent increase, "this place is way too small for what we need," he says.

Wattenberg wants the Book Thing to remain accessible by public transportation, be wheelchair-accessible, and be in a neighborhood where people feel comfortable dropping off their books.

Aleks Martray, 23, browsing in the history and politics section, is worried about the Book Thing's uncertain future. "I think a lot of people have that ambition of wanting knowledge and only have limited resources. But they come to the Book Thing and realize it's not that difficult," he says. "These kinds of things are essential -- I don't think they should be seen as disposable."

After all, he says, citing a former Baltimore mayor's slogan for the town, "this is supposed to be 'the city that reads.' "

© 2004 The Washington Post Company