Founder sees 'mountain of work ahead' after The Book Thing fire

Baltimore fire crews responded to a warehouse fire along Greenmount Avenue early Wednesday.

The founder of a popular Baltimore book exchange vowed to reopen after a fire Wednesday morning caused extensive damage to the warehouse where it was housed.

The one-alarm fire at The Book Thing, near Greenmount Avenue and 30th Street in the Abell neighborhood, was declared under control 45 minutes after crews responded around 5:15 a.m., a Baltimore City Fire Department spokesman said.

Samuel Johnson said firefighters arrived to find smoke and then discovered the fire in the rear of the one-story brick building. No injuries were reported.

The Book Thing "won't be able to operate out of there for a while, as the building is partially demolished," Johnson said.

Yet the business will open again this weekend. Book Thing founder Russell Wattenberg aims to bring all the books still in good condition outside for people to choose from. Until then, the cleanup begins.

"It's just going to be a huge mountain of work ahead," he said. "Just replacing the garage door alone will be in the thousands of dollars.

"We're going to rebuild. It's just going to take a lot of help from the community," he said.

The president of the Abell Improvement Association said the neighborhood group was planning to host a fundraiser for the shop at the Peabody Brewery in the weeks to come.

Wattenberg asked those interested in donating books to wait. He has no place to put them.

"As of yesterday, there were about 200,000 books in the building. As of today, I don't know," he said.

Wattenberg said a neighbor who lives close to the shop knocked on his door around 5:30 a.m., warning him about the fire. And the news spread quickly. Around 10 a.m., his sister who lives in Michigan texted him about the shop from an article she read online, and a dozen volunteers and around 30 regular customers came to help.

"The amount of tears from the people stopping by shocked me," he said.

Johnson said the cause of the fire was under investigation.

Wattenberg said police said the fire began in a corner of the shop, but there was no evidence of forced entry, arson or an electrical cause. But finding out the cause now wouldn't help, he said.

"What's the point of knowing right now?" he said.

Wattenberg is left with thousands of books, many burned or soaked. The warehouse floor was a mix of debris and water Wednesday, and a third of the parking lot was filled with the shop's remnants and stacks of books firefighters brought outside to hose down to ensure there were no remaining embers.

"I can't think of the grand scope. I will have to take it one book at a time," Wattenberg said.

"Everywhere I look, it's just stuff ... and it's not about the money. Whatever happened to start the fire, it didn't just start a fire. It affected a [lot] of people," said Wattenberg, referring to the young volunteers who come to the shop on weekends.

Hours after receiving the first call, he said the fire had not registered for him. He compared it to having to plan a funeral for a loved one who just died. The responsibility of rebuilding and saving the books has distracted him from sadness, he said.

"The grief comes later. That's kind of what I'm dealing with," he said.

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