Teachers who frequented Dougherty’s Pub in Baltimore, Maryland, for Friday happy hours never would have guessed what the bartender was doing for their students.
Hearing complaints of a lack of books in Baltimore public schools, bartender Russell Wattenberg decided to do something to help share his love for reading. He was shocked to discover that out of the 180 Baltimore public schools, only 60 have libraries. So he decided to do something to increase students’ access to books.
Emptying his tip jar one day, Wattenberg went and bought 300 books, and when a group of teachers came by for a drink, he invited them to take what they wanted from the back of his van.
Encouraged by their enthusiasm, Wattenberg began shopping for used books and passing them out in poor neighborhoods. Two years ago, he quit his job at Dougherty’s and rented a row house basement to house his new project, which he named “The Book Thing of Baltimore.”
When asked what Book Thing is all about, Wattenberg—who maintains the easygoing demeanor of a bartender—explains, “What we do is take books that people don’t want anymore and give them to people who want them.”
Currently, Book Thing gives away approximately 10,000 books a week and is constantly receiving book donations from new bookstores, old bookstores, libraries, universities, and anyone who has books he wants to give away. On any given weekend, young and old alike will be found perusing the stacks of books that have been catalogued by Book Thing’s volunteers.
Each book is stamped “Not for resale. This is a free book,” and there is no limit to how many books someone may take. But, Wattenberg’s sense of humor shows on Book Thing’s Web site, where the limit of the number of books one can take on a visit is listed at 150,000. No one has pushed that limit thus far, though Wattenberg says that one man came in and took away more than 20,000 books in a Ryder truck and sent them to Africa.
Since Book Thing does not make a profit, Wattenberg manages the venture with a $30,000 grant from the Goldseker Foundation and an 18-month, $50,000 fellowship from the Open Society Institute.
“I figured that at the time, I was 27 years old, with no wife, no kids, and if there was ever a time in my life to give away books, this was it,” Wattenberg says. “I made good money when I was bartending; so I just used my savings to do it, because it was something I wanted to do.”
Wattenberg says that what makes his job worthwhile is the enjoyment he gets from seeing people pick up one of the 250,000 books he has in stock and begin to flip through it. Growing up on his mother’s collection of Agatha Christie mysteries, Wattenberg was a reader from a young age. And although Baltimore’s schools now mandate a reading period for students, Book Thing is the only way some teachers and students can get access to books.
As a result, Wattenberg is constantly trying to keep children’s books in stock. When none are donated, he shops around with money from his own pocket to ensure he has them in stock.
“I can’t get enough children’s books; so what I have been doing is hitting the thrift stores, the used books stores, and buying them to give away,” Wattenberg says. “That’s just stuff I pay for from my pocket, because I can pick up 150 children’s books for 20 bucks. What am I going to spend it on, another carton of cigarettes?”
Operating with almost no funding gives Book Thing a kind of bare-bones charm. Still, Wattenberg says a few simple improvements could be made to the basement that houses the program to make it a more inviting place for people to browse the books he gives away.
“I’m looking for a better place, a place with a bathroom, heat, all those other luxuries people take for granted every day,” he says.