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‘The Book Thing’ marks 10 years of donating books

Andrea Blackstone | 4/24/2015, midnight
National Volunteer Month is an ideal time to recognize people like Russell Wattenberg and volunteers who assist him.
Supporters of The Book Thing of Baltimore, Inc. located at 3001 Vineyard Lane in Baltimore recently celebrated 10 years of book giving and sharing. As a result of what founder Russell Wattenburg started after volunteering to help teachers, each patron may take up to 150,000 books a day— every Saturday and Sunday. All the books at The Book Thing are free and people from all over Maryland as well as neighboring states regularly visit the bookstore. (Courtesy Photo)

National Volunteer Month is an ideal time to recognize people like Russell Wattenberg and volunteers who assist him.

The founder of The Book Thing of Baltimore, Inc. gives away books year-round, with the help of volunteers and part time hired assistants who pitch in when a load of books arrive or when expertise is required.

The Book Thing’s supporters recently celebrated 10 years of book giving and sharing at 3001 Vineyard Lane in Baltimore, which is the unique nonprofit’s permanent home.

As a result of what one man started after volunteering to help teachers, each patron may take up to 150,000 books a day— every Saturday and Sunday.

Visitors can periodically catch a glimpse of Wattenberg when he emerges from the garage where he sorts book donations to ask if any help is needed to find particular selections.

“One of the biggest problems I have is trying to convince people that yes, the books are free! Yes, they can take as many as they want,” Wattenberg said. “Many books people take— books they didn’t even know they are looking for.”

Wattenberg explained that book browsers may find titles that college friends raved about 20 years ago but never got around to reading. In some cases, book lovers have heard about an author on the radio and they prefer to take a free book to determine if they like it, before buying the author’s other titles.

The movement to take and share books was created after Wattenberg volunteered to support teachers, during the time when he managed Dougherty’s Pub in Baltimore.

“It just started out as me giving away some books to some teachers who were at the bar,” Wattenberg said. “Teachers would come in for Friday happy hour. They remarked they did not have enough books for their classroom. I would go to thrift stores and used book sales and browse myself. I couldn’t pass up a copy of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ for 10 cents. I had a bunch of books I picked up so, I told teachers if you guys need books, go through the back of the van and take whatever they wanted. Other people started bringing in books they didn’t want anymore. More and more, people started getting books. It just kind of grew from there.”

Wattenberg’s operation was granted 501(c)(3) status in 1999. When The Book Thing had to move from a rented row house basement in 2005, Wattenberg wondered if putting together a deal to acquire a new location would be possible.

“The banks just laughed at me. I was asking for a mortgage and my business was giving away books,” Wattenberg said. “Eventually we raised the money for the down payment and found someone to give me a mortgage.”

Today, people often find out about The Book Thing by word of mouth. Everyone from homeschoolers to students who attend Johns Hopkins University have visited The Book Thing.

Wattenberg’s operation regularly attracts visitors from Pennsylvania; Delaware; New Jersey; New York; West Virginia; Virginia; and the District of Columbia.