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Up from the ashes: The Book Thing returns

On Tuesday, as volunteers flitted in and out of the rooms of the The Book Thing — breaking down boxes, building up bookcases and sorting hundreds of titles onto their designated shelves — Russell Wattenberg, the founder of the free book warehouse and nonprofit, made it clear that he’s only really ever wanted to do one thing.

“Give away books,” Wattenberg, 45, said.

But his dream nearly turned to ash in March 2016 when a fire devastated the warehouse. The cause is still unknown.

With his operation forced to close, Wattenberg found himself less focused on books and more on organizing cleanups, obtaining permits and mapping out new designs with architects.

On Saturday, Wattenberg returns to his original ambition with the much-anticipated reopening of The Book Thing, where community members can see what he’s accomplished and, of course, grab some free books.

“It means the world to us. We’ve been lost without it. … It’s been a terrible void not to have it open, and so many people depend on it,” said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, adding that since its closing, she’s seen people stacking their books near the warehouse’s storage room, located across the street.

“Everyone has been involved in saying, ‘Hurry up! Hurry up!’ ”

For more than a decade, the Abell warehouse served as a haven for taking in unwanted books and placing them in the hands of people who need them. On weekends, with its crowded bookshelves and bins, the warehouse bustled with bibliophiles looking for new reads, teachers and school employees searching for titles for their students, and “feeders,” as Wattenberg calls them — people who come to collect books in order to distribute them to friends, family, and community members.

The Book Thing was unsophisticated in appearance, but functional — a space of give-and-take (Wattenberg estimated that The Book Thing gave away 400,000 to 500,000 books a year when it was active, and had around 200,000 books in the warehouse at the time of the fire). It was the sort of quintessential, quirky Baltimore institution that showed up in travelogues.

Rebuilding it has been exhausting, with lots of pressure, even on the smallest details.

“Whatever I decide on is going to be there for another 20 years. [There are] such ramifications to it,” Wattenberg said.

Today, the space has been transformed.

The roof has been repaired, new furnaces and ceiling fans have been installed, and a handicap-accessible bathroom has been built. Electrical outlets, once closer to the floor, are now located at least 7 feet high on the warehouse walls, far from flammable books. Warehouse rooms that house the books, once referred to by number, are now color-coded in shades of red, green and blue with additional windows, which makes directing customers or volunteers around the space easier, Wattenberg said.

Around 60 categories of books are also labeled in newly arranged sections, including special shelving for sheet music. The most popular categories — fiction, children’s, African-American interest and cooking — are located farther inside the warehouse, to prevent bottlenecks.

“I’ve had a year to think about it,” he said with a laugh.

Still, Wattenberg who opened The Book Thing at its first location in Charles Village in 1999, encountered obstacles along the road to rebuilding.

He had to learn which permits were needed and which aspects of the building — erected in 1967, according to property records — were beyond repair. The work cost around $250,000 for structural repairs alone, which was paid for by insurance. But “for a good chunk of the time, nothing was happening,” Wattenberg said.

Architectural design firm Hord Coplan Macht originally offered to design the space for free. But, Wattenberg said, permits were not submitted within a reasonable time, he spent a year waiting and, eventually, “I gave up on them.”

In an emailed statement to The Baltimore Sun, a Hord Coplan Macht spokesperson wrote that the company was “nearly complete with full design documents for permit, including engaging an … engineer to contribute their services pro bono as well, when the owner chose to pursue another path. We are all very happy to see this valuable community resource back up and running.”

Watternberg instead hired local company Matos Builders to replace furnaces and to design and rebuild the interior and overall structure of the warehouse. He hired Taggart Brown & Associates Inc. to repair the roof and gutters.

Book donations didn’t stop coming. Wattenberg continued to host book drives periodically and rented out a former truck garage, now storage space, across the street from the warehouse, to accommodate mountains of boxes. Wattenberg estimates that around 200,000 books will be stored in the warehouse come Saturday, the same number that were lost within the fire.

Wattenberg said he has been overwhelmed with the community response. Falkenhan's Hardware in Hampden sent masks and gloves, and the nearby Peabody Heights Brewery offered beers to volunteers during cleanups and hosted a trivia night and a benefit concert, donating profits to The Book Thing.

Avid visitors to The Book Thing, like Donna Dannals, 61, of Sparks, also volunteered regularly. She said it was a no-brainer: The Book Thing has helped countless people.

“It’s been a godsend,” said the former reading specialist, who has collected around 1,000 books a month from The Book Thing for the past several years, distributing them to local schools for students, teachers and libraries, many of which don’t have enough books in stock.

“It’s really special what The Book Thing is and what it stands for and what it brought to the community. … It’s a bummer that it’s taken so long,” said Eddie O’Keefe, director of marketing at Peabody Heights Brewery, but he emphasized that the fire would be just a small “blip in the timeline of The Book Thing.”

“No matter what, people keep coming back. … It’s definitely left an impression on a lot of people in the city.”

Wattenberg admits while eyeing the mounds of boxes in the storage space, “I never thought it would get to this size.”

It was a dream he had nearly two decades ago, when the former pub manager realized he liked “dealing with books more than dealing with people.” Since then, it’s been his full-time job to run The Book Thing, which funds itself through a combination of financial donations, the sale of some donated books and the rental of some volumes to theaters and film and TV productions in the area, he said (Wattenberg pays himself around $13,000 a year, enough, he said, for room and board).

Wattenberg said he’s just happy to have a second chance.

“I’ll never stop,” he said. He plans to expand to host book distribution points around the city, in places like courthouses, schools, bars and laundromats. He’s aiming to stock more books that are in high demand at the warehouse and hopes to attract new volunteers.

For now, Clarke said, “We’re getting back to where belong — sitting among the books and picking which ones we want to take home. … There’s nothing like The Book Thing.”

If you go

The free grand reopening kickoff is at 9 a.m. Saturday. 3001 Vineyard Lane. bookthing.org.

bbritto@baltsun.com

twitter.com/brittanybritto

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