Yes, the books are really and truly free at The Book Thing in Baltimore. With a mission statement saying that it “puts unwanted books into the hands of those who want them,” The Book Thing prides itself on the number of books it gives away per year, which is now more than a million. Russell Wattenberg, the founder of the nonprofit, often jokes that he won’t be happy unless you walk away with at least twenty.
Wattenberg started the nonprofit in the late 90s out of the back of his van to help his teacher friends who were disgruntled with the high cost of books. In 1999, he officially opened The Book Thing out of his basement and made the nonprofit his full time job. Wattenberg personally looks through each book that passes through his doors for sensitive material — mostly pornography — and for personal items, like diaries or journals, that might have been accidentally thrown away.
In March 2016, The Book Thing burned down due to an unknown cause, and just reopened again this past October. During the year it took to rebuild and remodel, the community donated 200,000 books to The Book Thing, effectively restocking it to the point it was before the fire. The warehouse rooms are now color-coded and are organized based on topic and popularity.
The structural repairs cost a total of $250,000, most of which was paid by insurance, and Wattenburg hired Matos Builders and Taggart Brown & Associates Inc. who fixed the furnaces and roof, respectively. Matos Builders also designed the warehouse’s interior, and several other local businesses donated construction equipment or hosted fundraisers to help with costs.
Today, The Book Thing is incredible. Situated in a large warehouse with a colorful mural by Iandry Randriamandroso, assistant Giulia Livi and several artist apprentices on the side, The Book Thing has a tiny parking lot for the amount of people visiting it on an early Saturday morning, and space is definitely limited. The warehouse sits in the middle of Vineyard Lane off of Greenmount Avenue and is juxtaposed next to upscale houses a block away.
Entrance into The Book Thing comes through a nondescript pale gray door, a door that seems like it couldn’t possibly house all the books it actually does, and once inside, you’re hit with the overwhelmingly intoxicating smell of books and row after row of tightly packed novels and textbooks. The Book Thing houses an impressive amount of genres, ranging from world history to poetry and classics. Their textbook section is exceptionally well-stocked with a good number of up-to-date books, and their reference section is also surprisingly wide in breadth of topic.
In the future, Wattenburg hopes to expand The Book Thing’s mission to include other book distribution stops throughout Baltimore, at courthouses and schools, broadening the reach of the free books and helping more people find the perfect novel. The Book Thing is open every Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 3001 Vineyard Lane. Donations can be made through its website, and volunteers are always welcome anytime on the weekends or from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.