One volunteer rolled a rickety cart carrying soot-covered paperbacks out of the charred Book Thing building Saturday. Others gently wiped grime from dust jackets to begin the cleanup at the free book exchange in Baltimore after a fire this week.
Many patrons came to volunteer. Others stopped by to pick some new reading material. Many were taken aback by the scene. Cardboard boxes of salvaged books were lined up outside for people to peruse. Books too damaged to offer filled a large rented dumpster.
"We've got no place to put them," said founder Russell Wattenberg. "We've got to start gutting the building."
Volunteers inside wore masks as they picked through the remnants of the collection. Some books with plastic dust jackets had fused together. All were covered in a fine dark film.
The one-alarm fire broke out about 5:15 a.m. Wednesday. Firefighters got it under control in about 45 minutes, officials said.
Wattenberg said the blaze started in a sorting room off the front entrance to the building. Flames ate away at the ceiling, damaging wooden beams and destroying the electrical and plumbing systems, he said.
He said the cause of the fire is undetermined; there was no evidence of forced entry, arson or an electrical cause.
Wattenberg said he hoped to offload as many books as possible so the work of rebuilding can begin. After close on Saturday, Wattenberg said, the books would either have to be taken inside or covered in tarps. He planned to reopen one last time from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
It's unclear what will happen to the remaining books. Wattenberg said the book exchange was no longer accepting book donations but has started a fundraiser at bookthing.org to help pay to rebuild and reopen.
Wattenberg said he's been overwhelmed by the support from the community. Volunteers have donated money, time, and other supplies. On Saturday, he was continually approached by people offering to help clean up.
One man offered to loan his pickup truck and run to the dump to see what items could be disposed there.
Wattenberg told the man the burned books cannot be recycled.
"They just need people to take them," said Keri Hyde, 48, of Hampden. She and her 16-year-old daughter Josie, helped to wipe down books.
"We just wanted to come over and help," she said. "It's an amazing community resource."
She helped 11-year-old Lanira Davis and her 8-year-old sister Erin pick though a large bin of books outside.
Erin Davis ran to show an aunt a pop-up book she found.
Linda Jolly watched as her niece flipped through the pages.
"Oh, that's beautiful," she said. "Get that one."
Jolly, who lives in Towson, said she is a longtime patron of the book exchange, where she has been able to save money by picking up books for school reading assignments for her children and other kids in her family.
She also has picked up many books on religion, which inspired her to write a book called "A Gathering of Butterflies for God."
"They really helped me through all these years," she said. "I hope they reopen."