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A novel idea - free books

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Funny where a gripe to a bartender may lead. Particularly when the bartender is Russell Wattenberg - liberator of great literature, Robin Hood of romance novels, a guy who believes the best price for a book is no price at all.

The gripe in this case, from Baltimore teachers about the paucity of books for pupils, led yesterday to a Charles Village basement where Wattenberg and a crew of volunteers sorted through a mountain range of 125,000 books.

All of which they insist on giving away for free. For Wattenberg is the founder of the Book Thing of Baltimore, a new nonprofit venture with big dreams and an extraordinarily simple mission.

"All I'm doing is taking books people don't want and giving them to people that want 'em," says the beefy, bearded Wattenberg, 27, 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."

But he's getting the hang of it. At the Charles Village Festival last weekend, he gave away 10,000 books. In a recent foray to Margaret Brent Elementary School on St. Paul Street, he set up on the sidewalk as the children were leaving school and dispensed 500 books in 15 minutes.

"There were little fights breaking out over who saw which book first," Wattenberg marvels. "Those were books no one wanted - and here I've got kids fighting over them."

Like many great ideas in the course of human history, this one was born over beer. Wattenberg, who stopped for gas in Baltimore five years ago and never left, was working as manager and day bartender at Dougherty's Pub on West Chase Street. Presiding over Friday happy hours that drew a lot of teachers, he heard them grumbling about paying for books and supplies out of their own pockets.

So Wattenberg, a tournament Scrabble player who traces his own book addiction to an early encounter with "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel," started cruising yard sales and thrift shops for cheap books. He loaded them into his tan-and-rust 1984 Dodge van. When the teachers came into Dougherty's, "I'd throw them the keys to my van and say, 'Help yourself.'"

The "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. Though his customers say he makes a mean Manhattan, Wattenberg began to suspect he might have a calling higher than the serving of drinks.

Last year, one of the teachers, Mary Welliver-Dillon, mentioned a "bake sale" at her school; Wattenberg, a little obsessed, heard "book sale." They talked, and she discovered her seventh- and eighth-graders loved to read books they chose themselves and didn't have to return. She introduced Wattenberg to her husband, Dan Dillon, a veteran of several local nonprofits.

Dillon asked Wattenberg, "You want to go legit?" And in September, after piles of paperwork, the project got official status as a tax-exempt, nonprofit corporation, with Wattenberg as executive director, Dillon as president, Welliver-Dillon as secretary and several Dougherty's regulars on the board.

A couple of weeks later, Wattenberg set up a booth at the Baltimore Book Festival in Mount Vernon. "It was sort of a test. If everybody said, 'Russell, you're crazy,' or 'What are you thinking?' I might have given it up," he recalls. "But everybody said, 'Great idea!'"

Not everyone got the "free" part. He left his books on display overnight. "The next morning a cop comes up and says, 'I had to chase a lot of people away from your books all night.' So I tried to explain that I wanted people to take them," he says.

At the Book Thing booth at the Charles Village Festival, Wattenberg and his comrades could be heard yelling "Free books!" - across from the booth of Book Rendezvous, which runs three used book stores. You might assume a bookseller would resent the competition, but you would be wrong.

"Absolutely not," said Clifford A. Panken, owner of Book Rendezvous. "I don't feel it hurt our business. I just found out about him a month ago, and I plan to give him a lot of books."

The only remotely similar operation Wattenberg has found locally is the book bank operated by Baltimore Reads, a literacy nonprofit. But because Baltimore Reads accepts and distributes largely children's books, it, too, gives Wattenberg books that don't fit that profile.

"It's actually a very noble thing he's doing," said Panken. "The only thing I don't get is where he'll get the money to make it all work."

Well, says Wattenberg, who quit his bar job in November to work full-time on the Book Thing, he's not sure either. He's a low-cost guy - single, with a modest apartment overrun by books, a cat named Miss Marple after Agatha Christie's heroine, and two vans (the Dodge, with 385,000 miles, finally stopped running and awaits restoration). Yet he admits that things are "very, very tight." At the urging of the board he has reluctantly sold a handful of more valuable donated books to pay expenses - notably a first edition of Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," which brought $227.50 in an online auction. That covered the $200 monthly rent on the basement where the books are stored.

And he has fired off grant applications to "about 30" foundations and businesses. Some applications are for modest one-time grants - to a bank for $1,000 worth of shelving, for instance. Others seek ongoing funding for what Wattenberg calls his "Books in the Hood" plan. That consists of loading a mix of books into the van, parking on a busy corner in a poor neighborhood, and giving them all away.

Yesterday at the book-sorting party he got only positive feedback. While Wattenberg and volunteers moved books to shelves, passers-by who spotted the "Free Books" signs descended warily to the basement and began to help or browse.

Bill O'Connor, a retired literature and sociology teacher, carried off a bagful, mostly for friends - "Basic Oil Painting Techniques," "Letters of Vincent Van Gogh," and "Mrs. Bridge" by Evan S. Connell, whom O'Connor described as "a wonderful novelist of ideas" as Dillon stamped each book with a notice: "Not for Resale. THIS IS A FREE BOOK."

Allison Bell, 3 1/2 years old, found a pristine copy of "Dino Fun," a coloring book with three plastic dinosaur stamps attached. She clasped it to her chest while trailing after her mother, Martha Gatewood of Hamilton, who was filling a bag with mysteries.

"It's fantastic," Gatewood said of the Book Thing. "If I don't get out of here soon, I'll have too much to carry."

The Book Thing of Baltimore can be reached at 410-662-5631 or by e-mail to bookthingbaltimore@hotmail.com. Volunteers or book-seekers may visit today from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the rear of 2645 N. Charles St. at 27th Street.

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