Arts & Culture

The Book Thing Bounces Back

A Baltimore literary institution gets reborn, thanks to the community.

This is a story about loving something so much you dedicate your life to it—about doing something not for the acclaim, but because it’s the right thing to do. Like all of life, it’s also a story about growth and loss, success and pain, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s about how, even when everything you’ve strived for goes up in flames, if you’ve done good work, you might find a community of people there to raise it up again. 

This is the story of The Book Thing, a place that is a little difficult to describe. It’s not a bookstore, because you can’t buy the thousands of titles it offers, and it’s not an exchange, because you don’t have to give books away to take them. It’s a place where, mind-bogglingly, you can take donated books for free, as many as you like, with no catch. And like many ventures in Baltimore that run largely on commitment and heart, it seems like it should have run out of steam—but miraculously, it hasn’t. Not even when a fire reduced it to a smoldering heap in March 2016. 

The Book Thing has been nurturing readers since 1999, when Russell Wattenberg, who arrived in Baltimore somewhat by accident, turned his hobby of collecting books and giving them away into a full-time thing—“Russell’s book thing,” as the patrons at the former Mt. Vernon mainstay Dougherty’s, where he used to tend bar, called it. The name stuck. The old warehouse near Waverly that Wattenberg used as The Book Thing headquarters—where books lined the walls, stacked along bookshelves that turned the rooms into a veritable literary maze—became a haven for bibliophiles who carried their finds by the armful. And Wattenberg could always count on more books, handed over in shopping bags, milk crates, or cardboard boxes tinged green with mold from years in dark, dank basements. 

His mission won national acclaim—The New York Times ran a story in 2002 called “Where Even the Dime Novel Doesn’t Cost a Cent,” declaring The Book Thing “one of this city’s grand treasure troves.” People magazine ran a feature. C-SPAN came to do a segment.

“I like when I can give a book to a person and tell them, ‘I think you’ll enjoy this.ʼ”

But it all came to a grinding halt in the early morning of March 2, 2016, when Wattenberg was roused from sleep by a pounding at his door. A neighbor told him that The Book Thing was on fire, and by the time Wattenberg threw on clothes and ran a few blocks over to Vineyard Lane, all that was left was smoke-stained shelves full of charred, soggy books. 

“I was just totally numb. That whole day was such a blur,” says Wattenberg. “It was amazing the number of people who were crying, men and women. It’s like you don’t realize how good something is until it’s gone, how important it was to these folks. There were a lot of people there who, before the fire, I saw every weekend or one or two days a week for 15 years. I have no idea what their names are, if they’re homeless or rich. That’s the beauty of The Book Thing.”

But The Book Thing wasn’t really gone—in fact, the very people who surrounded Wattenberg that day were there to resurrect it. 

To fully understand The Book Thing, you have to understand Russell Wattenberg. This burly, teddy bear of an unlikely hero prefers, for the most part, to stay out of the spotlight. But if you do catch him, say at the row of Formstone buildings on Vineyard Lane that has become The Book Thing’s temporary sorting headquarters, or at the neighboring brewery Peabody Heights, where he hangs out on Friday evenings, it’s clear how much he loves what he does.

“I like when I can give a book to a person and tell them, ‘I think you’ll really enjoy this,’ and they’ll come back later and say that they did,” Wattenberg says. “And then there are times, like when someone once brought in a class of fifth graders and one of them refused to look through the kids’ books and was off in a corner and ended up grabbing an oceanography college textbook off the shelf. He probably couldn’t read three-quarters of it, but he wanted that book. And he sat there and looked at it and flipped the pages for an hour. That made me feel good, you know what I mean?”

The Book Thing’s creation came about through equal parts chance and instinct, and Wattenberg shares the story as if what transpired still surprises him. “I never actually got the idea—it just kind of happened,” he says. “If I’d had the idea, I wouldn’t have done it. I really never even thought I’d be in Baltimore.”

Some 20 years ago, he was straight out of college, all of his belongings loaded into his van, on his way to visit his mother in Florida, when he stopped in Baltimore to get gas. To ease his travel-induced weariness, he phoned a friend and asked to stay at her place for the night. In exchange, he would help her boyfriend with some work at a house he was renovating. One thing led to another, and Wattenberg ended up staying long term and working at Dougherty’s. That’s when his hobby really took off. 

Wattenberg had always collected books, but not in the way you might think. He wasn’t in it for rare books or first editions—instead, he’d grab a dog-eared copy of To Kill a Mockingbird at a garage sale for 25 cents, or keep his eyes peeled at sidewalk sales for his childhood favorites like Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. When he heard some patrons, who happened to be teachers, complaining about needing books, “I said, ‘Just go out to the van and grab whatever you want.’ So the word spread, and people started bringing me books they didn’t want anymore and leaving them at the bar. And it just kind of grew and grew and grew.”

In 1999, those same teachers put together the paperwork for The Book Thing to become a nonprofit, and Wattenberg quit his job (“Give books away; sell alcohol to drunks—it was a real moral dilemma there,” he says with a wink) and moved the operation to the 950-square-foot basement of a commercial Charles Village rowhome. It moved to a bigger home in 2005, when Wattenberg bought a former warehouse and darkroom near Waverly. 

He raised $60,000 in 60 days for the down payment and closing costs—“no bank would touch me for a mortgage, surprise, surprise,” he says. Someone also loaned him a good chunk of their retirement savings, and Wattenberg worked to pay off the benefactor in seven years, mostly through the sale of rare books, which is still the main way that The Book Thing funds itself. “I always say I can sell a first-edition Hemingway, which enables us to give away hundreds of Hemingways,” he says.

The Book Thing attracted readers by the thousands, as well as a corps of volunteers who kept the place running. Wattenberg isn’t good on exact numbers, but he can safely say “hundreds of thousands” of books have been given out and “hundreds” of people have volunteered their time, many on a weekly basis. For Diane Schaefer, who is retired from the health care field and has shelved books for the past three years, “the enthusiasm of the people who visit is why I volunteer. You absolutely never know who will show up or what books will show up, and I love being able to help people find what they are looking for.”

And it became everything to Wattenberg. His future wife was a volunteer, and the pair pined for one another for years before finally sharing their first kiss at The Book Thing over an old National Geographic issue on sequoias. One year later, they tied the knot at the annual anniversary party. “April 1 is our anniversary, and April 2 is our annikissery. We’re cheesy,” he says, grinning.

“You absolutely never know who . . . or what books will show up.”

So it makes sense that he was crushed to see his life reduced to a pile of smoldering embers. It still makes him emotional thinking about it. “I’ve been doing The Book Thing seven days a week, 80 to 100 hours every week for so long, and then just to see it all . . .” his voice trails off. “Shocked isn’t the right word. It’s almost as if I was seeing my own funeral.”

Immediately, on March 2, the day of the fire, people flocked to the scene. There were volunteers like Schaefer, who was supposed to work a shift sorting books and instead arrived to the smell of ash in the air. “It was devastating to see just the charred remains,” she says. “But there was also a lot of hope, which was wonderful. The volunteers immediately started to clean up, moving the remaining bookcases, taking out anything that was left.

Edward O’Keefe, the event coordinator at Peabody Heights Brewery, walked over with some beer and introduced himself to Wattenberg. Instantly, a friendship formed. “Russell is 100-percent genuine. He’s one of the few people in this world who has no ulterior motives,” O’Keefe says. He quickly knew he had to help however he could. 

Soon, the fundraisers started. Peabody Heights hosted a trivia night that people lined Greenmount Avenue for blocks to get in, with all 600 of them packing the brewery and raising thousands for the recovery. Peabody Heights also became The Book Thing’s satellite location, a tradition that will likely continue, O’Keefe says. “People sometimes look at us strangely that there’s a bookcase in a brewery,” he says. “And when we tell them to take [the books], some people ask, ‘Is there a catch? Do we have to buy a bunch of beer?’” Baltimore independent rock label Friends Records put on an epic concert with more than a dozen acts, including rapper Eze Jackson and up-and-coming rockers Sun Club, that pulled in $8,000. Hip Remington taqueria Clavel donated a portion of its sales one night. So did brewery institution The Brewer’s Art, as did Whole Foods. Even Baltimore Ghost Tours pitched in.

Others honored the loss in other ways. “The heart of this city thrums with a faintly anarchic spirit. We don’t do too well with authority, preferring to conduct our transactions unmediated by regulation and restraint,” writer Patricia Schultheis editorialized in The Sun a week after the fire. “Mr. Wattenberg understood Baltimoreans well enough to know they’d respond to his notion of free books by endlessly replenishing his supply.” 

Finally, this fall, all 7,000 boxes of books will move across the street.

All of this caught Wattenberg off guard. “People were raising money that we didn’t even know about. It got to be so much that I started telling people to give it to homeless shelters or someone who really needed it.” 

Before long, book donations started coming again, so Wattenberg rented temporary space across the street from The Book Thing’s shell. Wattenberg knew he wanted to rebuild on the same spot near Waverly, and aimed to be back up and running within a year. But then he was hit with construction, permit, and design delays that pushed back the re-opening. Still, he persevered, forging through dealings with the insurance company, firing and hiring architects and construction firms, never giving up. Now, finally, this fall, all 7,000 boxes of books, plus Eleanor, a tabby cat who is the nonprofit’s unofficial mascot, will move across the street, and The Book Thing will be home again once more.

One morning in July, Wattenberg leads a tour of the renovations, showing off the freshly painted walls, new offices, and yet-to-be-installed windows like a proud papa. “This is what’s going to be here for the next 20, 30 years,” he says, as buzz saws whir in the background.  

Wattenberg asked the construction company to save him a piece of one of the burnt joists. “I had them cut out a section, and I’m going to throw some shellac on it and hang it up here,” he says. “It’s not so much sentimental—it’s a reminder of what we’ve been through. And now we’re stronger.”