Russell Wattenberg Interviewed by Katie Robinson
When I first decided to interview Russell Wattenberg, owner of Baltimore’s beloved Book Thing, the local non-profit dedicated to giving away free books, I wanted to know who Russell really is: why did he dedicate his life to the project? Then, the Wednesday afternoon, before my interview, while I was looking at the The Book Thing’s website for contact info, I got a text from my roommate: “there was a fire at the Book Thing this morning.” I was in shock – selfishly panicked that I didn’t know what it meant for my story, and then, as I discovered the extent of the damage, devastated that such an important hub for the community was now in shambles. I decided to move forward with my interview, with a new purpose: I still wanted insight on Wattenberg himself, but more importantly, I wanted to learn how I could help, and how I could get the word out to people about what they could do to help.
Saturday afternoon I pulled up to The Book Thing, uncertain and a bit frightened of what I might find. I had heard that they were opening over the weekend by putting boxes of books out in the parking lot. But what was it going to look like? Who was going to be there? My memories visiting The Book Thing hold an especially important place in my heart: I discovered it after moving into my first apartment, where I spent a summer exploring Baltimore on my own, as my roommates and most of my friends were home for the summer. I spent many weekend afternoons walking for hours up and down every aisle, looking at every book spine, taking home one book, five books, ten books – once I even wiped out half of a shelf of Baltimore Magazines, taking every copy related to top places to eat or activities to do in the city. My days spent there helped me to stop feeling like Baltimore was just somewhere I went to school and to start feeling like it was my home. I know I’m not the only person whose connection to The Book Thing is deeply personal.
When I arrived, there were a number of people milling around the boxes and shelves full of some of the undamaged books. There were dumpsters and shelves turned on their sides to block off the parking lot so that cars couldn’t come in, and a volunteer greeted me with a flyer with information about the fire and some of the plans moving forward. The mood was silent, almost reverent, the feeling of grief was palpable. A few people spoke in hushed voices about their reactions to the news of the fire. Yet the feeling of hope was palpable as well: everyone present seemed assured that the community would pull together and get The Book Thing back on its feet soon.
Wattenberg was inside the building, which was being guarded by a few volunteers to prevent anyone from going inside. One of the volunteers introduced me to Wattenberg, who was incredibly kind and receptive when I asked to speak with him. He allowed me inside the front of the building to sit down and talk.
Inside was completely dark aside from a few portable lights placed on the floor. In places, the ceiling was falling apart, the walls peeling. The shelves that once housed my collection of Baltimore Magazines had been wiped out, left with just a shadow of ash outlining the books that used to be there. Throughout the course of our interview, a persistent fire alarm chirped every few minutes. The burning scent of smoke permeated everything – by the time I arrived back at my apartment later that afternoon, the scent of ash was completely absorbed into my clothes and hair.
In spite of the devastating circumstances, Russell and I had a very pleasant conversation about the nature of The Book Thing’s beginnings, its importance to him and the community, and what the plans are moving forward. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Kate Robinson: What inspired you to open The Book Thing, and what does it mean to you?
Russell Wattenberg: So, I never gave conscious thought to starting The Book Thing, it just kind of happened. It’s kind of like, what was the first time you had a tuna fish sandwich and why? If someone’s coming into a 7-Eleven as you’re walking out and they’re on crutches, do you hold the door open for ‘em? Did you plan that? When did you get the idea to do that? It’s just something that’s kind of… I used to manage a bar called Dougherty’s downtown. I had a lot of teachers come in for Friday happy hour, and they’d bitch about not having enough books for their classrooms and stuff so I used to always go to thrift stores and book sales and if I saw a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for 10 cents, I’d buy it even though I already have a bunch of copies, you know, and I just couldn’t… so uh I started giving books to teachers, one thing lead to another, people started dropping off books at the bar for me, people started coming to the bar to go through my van and take books, and it just kind of grew and grew and grew. Eventually got to the point where I just quit the bar to do it full time. I was kind of burned out. Let’s see, serving alcohol to a bunch of drunks, giving away books… it [laughs] it was that kind of thing. Um, so does that answer that part of the question? What was the next part?
KR: What does it mean to you?
RW: It’s, the answers changed in the last, what, 72 hours? [Long pause] It meant more of, all I’m doing is, I’m a middleman. People have stuff they don’t want, there are other people who want it. All I am is… I’m a location for, for people to, I just warehouse stuff and make it available. But now, it’s more along the lines of, I didn’t realize exactly how much of a community it built here. One of the volunteers jokes about how I should just start the Middle East peace process because usually at the same time in the kid’s book area you’ll have some conservative Jews with the yarmulkes and the prayer shawls, you’ll have a woman in a burka, and a group of Mennonite school teachers wearing the little white bonnets, it’s, we get the groups of nuns coming through, and its just, you get the homeless guys who are looking for something to read because they discovered that if you’re reading a book, the cops won’t hassle you. If you’re not doing anything, the cops will hassle you. But if you’re reading a book, they figure, he’s not getting into any trouble. So you’ll have somebody’s who’s, whenever a new book comes out they spend $30 for it at Barnes and Noble or whatever, donating those books and looking around for stuff, and they’ll be comparing authors with somebody who just left the shelter that morning. Do you know what I mean? And those same people are both commiserating about The Book Thing fire. Do you know what I mean? The number of people who have come up to me in tears and like, not even all of them are old women [laughs]. Do you know what I mean? It’s not the people that you usually see get emotional. So it’s just been, it’s just blowing me away. And we got, at the same time this is so fucking sad and depressing. I mean it just, the number of gallons of sweat that went into making this place. You know what I mean? So, alright, what’s the next question?
KR: I had a few general questions, quickly – approximate numbers – like about how many donations you get per month?
RW: About how many books?
KR: Yeah, book donations.
RW: Okay. In a month? Probably uh, probably 50,000, 60,000 or more.
KR: Wow, that’s incredible. How many, about, are taken out?
RW: About the same. Over the course of a year, it’s around even. But at certain points, we’re drowning in books. For instance, end of May and June, all the college students are leaving, you know how those college students are, they have to clean out their dorm rooms, they’re dropping off textbooks the bookstore won’t buy back, their copies of Steven King, Strunk and White, all that kind of stuff. And the schools, whenever the public schools, over the summer, if they’re on the rotation to get their floors done, all the books come here, ‘cause they don’t have any place to store them, and they have to be up off the ground. So yeah, so it varies. Come September, August, we’ve got so much stuff flying out of here.
KR: How much money is donated per year, about? And around how much do you need to keep it up and running?
RW: Well, I don’t know how much you know about how we function: one quarter of 1% of the books that get donated, get sold, that’s how we fund this stuff. We really don’t solicit donations or money. If somebody wants to give me $20 I’ll refuse it. I’d rather see it go to – despite what my customers believe, books aren’t a necessity of life – so I’d rather see it go to a soup kitchen, a health care clinic, or whatever else. We can, for the most part, until this week, we can fend for ourselves. Do you know what I mean? Also, we make money by renting books to movies and TV shows. So if you see props in Veep, if you see books in the background, that came from here.
KR: Oh, that’s so cool! I never knew that. That’s really interesting.
RW: So I rent to them. If it’s just for a scene, they’ll rent ‘em for a week, bring ‘em back. A month later, they’ll rent the same books again.
KR: Wow, that’s really neat! What are some shows that you guys have done that for?
RW: Between the movies, TV shows, commercials, theatres, um… Veep, there was a movie Syriana, The Wire, Homicide – Homicide didn’t need very many books – but yeah, pretty much anything that’s produced in Baltimore and Baltimore area.
KR: What was your first reaction to the fire?
RW: Numbness. I just couldn’t comprehend it. Do you know what I mean? While the fire was still smoldering and occasional flare-ups, they brought me in here to identify any place that there may be flammables, anything toxic. They had a lot of trouble finding their way around the building, ‘cause they couldn’t tell what was a wall and what was a bookcase. So, between the smoke and the mazelike, and the fact there aren’t really any windows in here, so it’s just, it was confusing for them. But I’m in here, watching it burn, and I just felt nothing. Do you know what I mean? I just couldn’t, I couldn’t comprehend it. It’s just so big, you can’t…
KR: You just can’t process it.
KR: Do you guys know, I know as of the first stories that came about it, they didn’t know what started it. Do you guys have any ideas now?
RW: No. The inspector from the fire department, the insurance company sent its inspector. This is neat: the insurance companies always send their inspector to see if it was caused by a coffee pot. Then the insurance company will sue the coffee pot manufacturer to recoup what they pay out in the claim. Which I just thought was, learned something new! But yeah, nobody’s been able to figure out what caused it. It started in the middle of a pile of books that were boxed up. So, I don’t know.
KR: That’s really odd.
RW: There was no sign of forced entry, so it wasn’t arson. There was nothing electrical in the area, no like, even a pilot light in the area. I figured we had a Spinal Tap drummer who spontaneously combusted. You ever see the movie Spinal Tap?
KR: Yeah [laughs]. So, what are the plans going forward?
RW: Well, the building’s gotta get gutted first, down to cinder block, concrete, and steel. So like, the roof. Probably about 1,500 square feet of the roof itself has to be cut out, because the joists that hold the roof up are burnt. So, so its gonna be a big, and everything needs to be stripped out. Anything that’s dry wall, anything that’s wood has to be stripped out. Then everything has to be power washed, whatever, or sand blasted, yeah I, I don’t know what the hell all that that has to happen. And then, it’s all new electrical for the whole building. Mostly, it’s gonna be a lot of new plumbing’s gonna be required, ‘cause any pipe that was soldered, the solder melted, and the heat, and then other pipes exploded because the water in them boiled and just built up the pressure.
KR: Wow. It’s just devastating. So are you guys taking donations now?
RW: Yeah. We’re on Facebook. We have a link. We have something on our website, we have a link.
RW: And a couple people have done GoFundMe pages. So yeah, but we much prefer it just go through our Paypal website. There’s one GoFundMe page that I’ve been in contact with the person, but unfortunately I think that one or two of them that start were people just trying to take advantage of the situation. Let me start a GoFundMe page, I’ll advertise it’s for The Book Thing.
KR: Yeah, that’s terrible.
RW: But it’s the world we live in, and I can’t, I can’t keep track of everything.
KR: Yeah, yeah absolutely.
RW: I mean, I got about a thousand or so emails to return.
KR: Right. So if you go through the Facebook page though, that’s where it’ll go directly to you guys?
RW: Yeah. And it’s also that that’s where people learn of that we need a lot of help this day. ‘Cause I don’t know, there’s no schedule for this type of thing, do you know what I mean? It’s just, so yeah, so it’s a lot of okay this is done so now we can have a give-away book case day where we just unbolt all the bookcases, bring ‘em outside, like we got out there now, just for people to take. We can’t, it doesn’t make sense for me to store them, have them cleaned, have them sealed, you know? It’s just easier just to build new ones. So it’s gonna be a shitload of lumber.
KR: What was, is there like a story behind the name? It’s funny ‘cause it kind of, it makes me think of, like my cat’s name is Babycat, it just kind of happens where you call it that and then it becomes the name.
RW: Well, the people at the bar would say, “I got some stuff for you book thing.” Do you know what I mean? And it just kind of stuck. I mean, what the hell else do you call it? It’s not a bookstore, it’s not a book exchange, it’s not a library, so what the hell else would you call it?
KR: The book thing! I like that. I’ve always liked the name.
RW: Thank you. Do you want some other answers to questions you didn’t ask?
KR: Sure, yeah!
RW: We’re looking to rebuild. It will probably be reopening sometime in months. Not years, not weeks, but months. Right now there’s no plans to open in another location while we’re getting this building repaired. It’d just be too much of a logistical nightmare. We don’t want people to bring us books, because right now we’ve got no place to put them. The other big thing is, to anybody who has books, I just want to let them know that I have no copyright, trademark, or anything else, patent, on giving away free books. So feel free to do it on your own. Hopefully some, some people develop places to give books to, whether it be leaving [books] at the reception desk at where they work or on bus stop benches or building shelves into bathrooms, do you know what I mean? Just develop other places to, to do the same thing I’m doing. Like I said, I’ve got no monopoly or anything else on giving away books. I said, if you want to help, check out Facebook. We also have a website which is bookthing.org. Facebook is updated more regularly.
I heavily urge everyone, those who have long loved The Book Thing and those who have never been alike, to take some time to check out The Book Thing of Baltimore on Facebook or their website, bookthing.org, to find out how to donate or help volunteer. As Wattenberg said, he doesn’t have a monopoly on giving away free books, but few places have created as much of a sense of community in the city of Baltimore as The Book Thing, and I think everyone will agree that we need to come together to help them get up and running again as soon as possible.
Katie Robinson is a writer and food-lover originally from the suburbs of Philadelphia who considers herself to have many homes in many places. She currently resides in Baltimore.