This man gave away free books until a fire destroyed his warehouse—how his community responded changed everything

What they did is incredible
November 24, 2017 5:49 pm Last Updated: November 24, 2017 6:00 pm

Russell Wattenberg of Baltimore, Maryland, wanted to do something different with his life. A lover of books, he wanted to do something that would allow him to share his passion for reading with others. This passion is what led him to creating The Book Thing in 1998.

The Book Thing is a warehouse that is chock full of books, hundreds of thousands in fact. As the architect of the project, Wattenberg says that The Book Thing is not a library or a book store.

Rather, The Book Thing is a place where members of the public can come and take books home to keep for free.

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With the motto being “To put unwanted books into the hands of those who want them,” patrons are encouraged to take whatever books they so choose, and as many as they like.

“All free,” Wattenberg explained to CBS. “It cuts down on robberies. We encourage shoplifters.”

With Wattenberg at the helm, The Book Thing operates through donations and volunteers. It’s open on weekends and his work has received high praise from the members of his community. Before opening for the day, a long line is usually seen outside of the warehouse.

“I don’t have the patience to teach somebody to read,” Wattenberg explained. “I don’t have the diligence to be a writer. The only way I see to contribute [to] the written word is by doing this.”

Some keep all of these books for themselves but many donate them to bigger causes, including Book Thing regular, Kim Shibley.

“These are all going back to my classroom,” Shibley told CBS. “I’m a teacher in a Baltimore city school and I stock all the classrooms with these books.”

The Book Thing opened on a weekly basis for 17 years. Things were running smoothly, until March 2016 when a fire devastated the warehouse—and his customers.

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“The number of people who came up to me with tears streaming down their face,” Wattenberg said. “I didn’t realize people cared as much as they do.”

As a small not-for-profit organization, the fire was essentially a death sentence for The Book Thing.

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“We lost about 200,000 books and the bookcases were so soaked in the smoke that they rarely were salvageable,” Wattenberg told Baltimore Magazine. “So we lost about 225 bookcases. Between the water damage, the smoke damage, the fire damage, the heat damage, it was just a mess.”

Wattenberg was determined not to let his dream go down with the fire, however, and he quickly went to work putting together plans to bring The Book Thing back.

To Wattenberg’s surprise, donations began pouring in from the community to bring back The Book Thing.

Fundraisers were launched, books were given—7,000 boxes of them—and in October 2017, more than a year after the fire, The Book Thing was back open again.

Happy to have his project back up and running, Wattenberg said that he is extremely grateful to the Baltimore community and is ready to get back to what he started The Book Thing for: giving away books.

“You’ll have somebody from one of the homeless shelters who stands on line and the guy right behind him in line that he’s been talking to … he’ll be a lawyer, both looking for [and] both discussing why [are] there so few book written on the Korean war,” Wattenberg told Baltimore Magazine.

“The thought of that is what keeps me going. It’s like nothing matters except for the book.”