On March 3rd of this year, I think all of Baltimore shed a collective tear for The Book Thing.
After serving as a major Baltimore institution for more than 20 years, The Book Thing caught fire. Baltimore fire crews responded to the fire on early Wednesday, leaving the formerly glorious shelves full of charred, soggy books. With more than 200,000 volumes in the warehouse, the toll of the fire is pretty staggering.
The Book Thing is a bookstore without the store.
Founded in the late 1990s by bartender Russell Wattenberg, The Book Thing was envisioned as a counterbalance to the challenge of students too poor to buy books. Wattenberg simply began to collect volumes and give them away.
While people often refer to The Book Thing as a book exchange, that’s not really accurate. There is no take-a-book-leave-a-book mentality. There is no swapping or trading. Sure, people donate books to The Book Thing all the time. I’ve taken whole bags of books over there to share. But The Book Thing’s message is free. Need a book? Take a book.
Before the tragedy of this spring, you could simply browse the shelves, grab anything that struck your fantasy (or hunt for a specific tome), and take your pile to the “check out”. Volunteers note down some information, then let you walk away with books stamped “not for resale.”
It’s a weird system, this trust in book exchange.
Wattenberg didn’t need to have a system for resupplying the “store”. Baltimoreans would simply replenish the supply of free books consistently (and happily).
The Book Thing knows that it’s message is a little complicated for some people to grasp. The first few lines of their website’s FAQ read as follows:
Are the books really free?
What’s the catch?
All the books have been stamped “not for resale” and are not to be resold. It means what it says. Please honor this request.
Is there a limit to how many books I can take?
You can only take 150,000 per day, per person.
It’s one of those weird pieces of Baltimore where we are happy to pitch in for the common good. Especially when that common good is a little literary nourishment.
Sadly, the fire put quite the damper on The Book Thing.
Happily though, it’s incredibly unlikely Baltimore will let Wattenberg’s dream die. Within a very short time, a Go Fund Me page cranked out more than $10,000 in donations. Last week a local benefit brought together countless supporters who love what The Book Thing stands for. There is also a donation link on their website – http://www.bookthing.org.
There’s no way Baltimore will let this dream die, and it makes me proud of my adopted city.