WATTENBERG'S GIFT TO BOOK LOVERS
WATTENBERG’S GIFT TO BOOKLOVERS
Dr Afzal Mirza
In the downtown Baltimore on Vineyard Street there is a gray single-storey structure that reminds you of a storage house. Above its closed door hangs a simple hand-written placard saying ”The Book Thing of Baltimore.” The place remains closed on other week days except on Saturdays and Sundays. On these two days the whole space in front of the building bustles with cars and other visitors. There are people bringing boxes full of books to donate and others who carry away books –each book stamped with the notice” Not for Resale. THIS IS A FREE BOOK.” Watching from outside one could hardly discern that the barrack-like building carries more than 250000 books and all donated. It is a fairly congested area where majority of middle class people live. Most of them are blacks but perhaps they are the people who deserve such a facility most. America has an excellent library system. You have a central library in every county and then there are branches in smaller towns. The Baltimore city has a central county library too and a number of other libraries including the famous Pratt Library. The membership of these libraries is free. I remember that when after acquiring membership of Baltimore County Library I asked the desk clerk how many books could I borrow at one time. To my astonishment she replied smilingly, “As many as you could carry.” Beside these libraries there are hundreds of libraries in educational institutions. But the novel idea of Book Thing was conceived in a beer bar where Russell Wattenberg worked as a bar tender.
A native of Brooklyn (New York) Wattenberg was passing through Baltimore when he stopped to fill petrol in his car. He liked the atmosphere so much that he decided to stay here for good. Back in New York his parents spent weekends buying and selling stuff at flea markets and once in junior high school young Russell got in trouble for selling candy in the cafeteria. Going through his parents’ house in upstate New York after his father untimely death in 1994, Wattenberg found the left- over things of the old man’s career as a salesperson: two 5-gallon buckets of DDT; enough liquor to stock a small store; cases of pens, pencils, and other school supplies; and 3,000 three-ring binders. But soon he realized that such a small store and these items wouldn’t generate enough money to make his both ends meet. So he also started buying and selling items in flea markets till his chance encounter with Baltimore, the beautiful harbor town of Maryland.
Wattenberg then in his mid-twenties moved to Baltimore in October ‘95 and got a job tending bar at Dougherty’s Pub in Mount Vernon. On Friday afternoons, a group of teachers gathered regularly at the bar and griped about the shortage of libraries in city schools. (According to Baltimore City Public School System officials, only one-third of the city’s 180 public schools have functional libraries open daily and operated by librarians.) Moved by their stories, Wattenberg emptied his tip jar one day and went garage-sale shopping, returning with nearly 300 used books. The next time the teachers came in for a beer, he tossed them the keys to his van and told them to take what they wanted. When once asked why did he use his own money to buy books for other people? “It is my passion because I love to read. They have always been around in my life. It is something very comforting and empowering, having the books around,” Mr. Wattenberg replied. The teachers were thrilled, and the used-book shopping became a habit. By the spring of 1998 Wattenberg was making trips to poorer neighborhoods on his days off, laying out trays of books on a corner and hollering “Free books!” to passersby. After renting a basement space near his home in 1999 Wattenberg gave up bartending and founded the non-profit Book Thing of Baltimore. Soon other people heard about what he was doing and started bringing him books, hundreds of thousands of books. He began distributing them to the public from his basement apartment.
Then the whole neighborhood got involved. Volunteers built bookshelves to house the books. Neighbors raised funds to pay Wattenberg a small salary, so that he could stop working extra jobs. Last year he shifted to the present independent premises. The “Book Thing” grew, as if by magic. Folks with unwanted books learned that Wattenberg would take them. Literacy programs would call to see if he could help.
Assisted by a group of volunteers Wattenberg has arranged the books in proper shelves under appropriate headings. Inside you will find stacks of books, shelves of books, boxes of books, about 250,000 books in all, arranged in general categories. The biggest section is that of books on fiction which is lodged in the main larger room Then in the smaller rooms there are books on history, politics, languages, travel and textbooks of medicine, engineering and finance. The whole interior has a modest décor. There is no air conditioning and there are simple cemented floors and simple shelves. Almost everything is donated. You can carry as many books you like but you have only to enter the number of books you are taking in the register kept near the entrance door. In the course of the typical weekend, according to Wattenberg the Book Thing gives away about 10,000 books, and takes in about the same amount. He believes that people deserve and need books, whatever their background.. Actually, his motivation is less complex. Says Wattenberg: “It makes me feel good.” Some people asked him if he would ever consider charging for his books—a dime, or even a penny—Wattenberg is emphatic. “Never,” he says. “That would ruin everything.” All I’m doing is taking books people don’t want and giving them to people that want ‘em,” says the beefy, bearded Wattenberg ( in his mid thirties now) in the accent of his native Brooklyn, N.Y. “Everybody says, ‘What’s the catch? What do I have to sign? What’s the suggested donation?’ The hardest thing is to convince people the books are really free.” (End)