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Educators and others look for books at The Book Thing on the last weekend before the school year begins.

A 6,955-square-foot warehouse in Baltimore’s Abell neighborhood holds something of a treasure trove for the city’s teachers.

As they prepare for Tuesday’s first day of school, educators are making last-minute trips to The Book Thing, carefully sorting through the thousands of novels and textbooks and dictionaries they can use to build up their classroom libraries — all free of charge.

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For years people have dropped off unwanted books at The Book Thing’s doors, and then gone inside to browse through others’ donated stories. Anyone is welcome to take home as many books as they want from the used book “store.” Some tuck a novel or two into their totes and head out. Others fill cardboard boxes to the brim.

The organization anticipates people’s incredulousness at the idea. The first three questions on its FAQ webpage read: Are the books free? Yes! Really Free? Yup. Absolutely Free? Yes.

It’s a uniquely important resource for teachers, whose struggle to pay for the books they needed to fill their classrooms inspired The Book Thing’s creation two decades ago.

Dan Parsons, an English teacher at Frederick Douglass High, walked out of The Book Thing on Saturday with a loaded box in his hands and even more books stuffed into his canvas backpack.

At his West Baltimore school — where many students come from poverty and witness the city’s unrelenting gun violence up close — Parsons transformed his classroom into a literary oasis. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of books cover nearly every surface. He uses stocked bookshelves to cordon off reading nooks where students can escape into the kinds of stories that both reflect their own experiences and open their minds to new ones.

Parsons is often asked what’s the best support for educators in the city. The longtime teacher’s answer? “I say The Book Thing."

Some of that is for practical reasons. Thanks to the copy he nabbed Saturday, Parsons has accumulated a dozen editions of “The Art of the Personal Essay” for his students to use. He’s stocked up on “King Lear” so neither his school nor his kids have to spend money on more copies of the Shakespearean tragedy. He collects what would be pricey SAT and ACT prep books so he can help his students prepare for college readiness exams.

He wants to instill a love of reading in his students, so if a kid mentions an interest in learning more about forensic science or physics or Japanese, Parsons swings by The Book Thing over the weekend, and by Monday, has supplementary reading waiting for them.

Parsons estimates around 85 percent of his massive classroom collection cycled through the warehouse.

Amanda Smoot, who teaches sixth and seventh grade at Old Mill Middle School South in Anne Arundel, searches through children's books at The Book Thing. Everything is free at the Baltimore institution, a particularly valuable resource for teachers hoping to bring literature into the classroom.
Amanda Smoot, who teaches sixth and seventh grade at Old Mill Middle School South in Anne Arundel, searches through children's books at The Book Thing. Everything is free at the Baltimore institution, a particularly valuable resource for teachers hoping to bring literature into the classroom. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

The Book Thing draws in teachers from across the state, who spread the word among themselves about this seemingly magical source of books in Baltimore. There’s a deep need for it, they say. According to a survey released in 2018 by the National Center for Education Statistics, 94 percent of teachers use their own money for classroom supplies. On average, the survey found, a teacher will spend about $480.

The desire to give teachers an assist is weaved into The Book Thing’s DNA. Its founder, Russell Wattenberg, got the idea for it when he was working in a downtown bar in the late 1990s. He often overheard the public school teachers who came in for happy hour complaining about their need for more books.

There’s no real inventory at The Book Thing — just volunteers in a backroom with no air conditioning sorting grocery carts full of books into general categories. No one knows just how many books are there.

The warehouse as it exists today rose from the ashes of a devastating fire in 2016. People from all over the city rallied around The Book Thing and helped it reopen the next year. So many people brought in books after the blaze that they have to use a separate warehouse to store the backlogged materials until volunteers can catalog them all.

Executive director Bonnie Hoppa can’t promise teachers she’ll have the exact text they need, but she knows The Book Thing will always have something of value for them.

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Amanda Smoot used to teach eighth grade, but this year she’s moving down to sixth and seventh at Anne Arundel’s Old Mill Middle South. She’s excited for the change, but needs new books to suit her younger learners.

She spent Saturday morning in the bustling “Kids” section, the only corner in the concrete-floored warehouse outfitted with a colorful carpet.

Books in the children’s area don’t last long. A volunteer walked over with a new haul of books stacked so high in his arms they nearly covered his eyes. As soon as he set them down, Smoot dived in.

She thumbed through a used copy of “Matilda,” the Roald Dahl story about an extraordinary girl from an abusive family who often escapes into the magical world of books.

“Oh," Smoot said, “I definitely want this one.”

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