The Chatter

The Book Thing Starts Next Chapter Under New Management

Here’s what to know when planning a visit to Baltimore’s free-to-all bookshop.

After 20 years of providing free-to-all books to the bibliophiles of Baltimore, The Book Thing has started a new chapter in its own story. In July, the nonprofit announced that its founder, Russell Wattenberg, who started the free book project that now occupies a Vineyard Lane warehouse in Abell, would step down from the organization due to medical issues.

Since then, longtime volunteer Bonnie Hoppa has taken over as The Book Thing’s executive director and has begun instituting a few changes to help usher the beloved community space into its second decade. We caught up with Hoppa to find out what she’s been up to during the first few months in her new role, as well as what volunteers and browsers alike can expect to experience during an upcoming visit. (Be on the lookout for the full interview with Hoppa in our November issue.)

With almost half a million books in the nonprofit’s backlog—currently stacked to the ceiling of a nearby warehouse—Hoppa decided to put a temporary restriction on the types of books that will be accepted for donation. As volunteers and staff work to sort and shelve the buildup of books in the upcoming months, The Book Thing will only be accepting donations in the following categories: kids and young adults, African American, Asian American, Latin American, Native American, LGBT, hardback fiction, sci-fi/fantasy, and romance. “It’s not the most popular decision, but we needed to do it so that we could start making progress because books sitting in storage for years is not what we’re here to do,” Hoppa says. “It’s not good for the books, it’s not good for our budget, it’s not accomplishing our mission.”

The Book Thing’s team of volunteers and staff members will now have more space to catalog the backlog of books, thanks to local real estate development group Greenmount Partners’ donation of a larger warehouse space on Greenmount Avenue. Lend a hand this weekend by helping to transport boxes of books to the new digs a few blocks away and get first dibs on the never-been-shelved titles.

For the first time ever, visitors will be hit with a cool breeze when they walk through The Book Thing’s doors. When she was a volunteer, Hoppa noticed that the warehouse’s need for air conditioning—especially during the city’s sweltering summers—was a standing request from visitors. “The AC has already made such a huge difference in the quality of life for us and the books,” Hoppa says. “One of the big reasons for installing it was that the likelihood of the books developing mold was extremely high. Now that’s less of a factor.”

One of Hoppa’s long-term goals is to focus on filling the shelves with genres that The Book Thing has typically lacked, such as kids’ books and titles geared toward audiences of color. “We have a huge demand for these types of books, and we can’t keep them on the shelves—so how do we fix that?” Hoppa says. “I’m looking into a way to dedicate part of our budget toward acquiring books in those categories, even if that means purchasing them from discount retailers or reaching out to other organizations that could partner with us to help add more of those books to our shelves. This is a demonstrated need in our community, and we’re working on filling it.”