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.
When it comes to taking thousands of books, individuals who run prison libraries have turned to The Book Thing as a resource, and so have book seekers who are building a school library or rebuilding one that burned down. Some people have even traveled from other parts of the world to book hunt. Doctors who work overseas search The Book Thing looking for medical books and patrons have reportedly shipped books to Eastern Europe, Africa, the Philippines and Indonesia.
New books and trade paperback versions of a title released in hardback find their way on to bookshelves at The Book Thing.
“Some publishers and printers drop off loads of books. We’ll get overstock from bookstores. We’ll get stuff from authors,” Wattenberg said. “We get a lot of review copies.”
Wattenberg remarked that the most rewarding part of what he does is having a place where people can drop off books for others to take and read. Many donors are thankful that they don’t have to throw their treasured books away, when they transition to assisted living facilities, when loved ones with collections pass away or during a move.
“Getting books is never the problem. It’s getting the right books in the right hands,” Wattenberg said. “Spread the word and take books!”
To learn more about The Book Thing, visit: www.bookthing.org or call 410-662-5631.