I have asthma and allergies, and I almost always have to leave because I start feeling sick, but it's worth it. The discomfort, the soreness, and the coughing--all worth it to me, and I relish every ache and sniffle. We give away all those books, you see, and nothing is better than that.
On a quiet day, we give away over 5,000 volumes. Our 'customers' are as diverse as our books, and our books come in every stripe; we have books on religion, self-help, carpentry, job training, computers, homemaking, cooking, child-rearing, psychology, mathematics, physics, science, foreign languages, literary theory, business, marketing. We have fiction and non-fiction, for every age and interest. We have magazines of every kind. The obscurity of some of the subjects we see will often cause us to laugh, but it's an oft-repeated truism among the volunteers that just as soon as you look at a book and wonder "Who on earth could want that?" someone will come in and be utterly delighted to find it, this thing they've been looking for forever. One man's rubbish truly is another man's treasure, and nowhere is it more evident than in the book-giving line of work.
Our books go everywhere. Many of our visitors take books for themselves, their children, and their families; many others come and take hundreds, even thousands away at a time, for schools, homeless shelters, prisons, and other institutions who have no money for books. We know that a goodly number of our books go out-of-state; one of our regulars, who also volunteers, takes boxes of children's books to his sister's school in, I believe, southern PA. Quite a few of our regulars mail books and magazines to their home countries, including South Africa and the Philippines.
My name is Amy. I am a 20-year-old girl trying to make it in Baltimore City. I am a bibliophile. And I need your help.
* * *
Books, for me, are a sensual as well as intellectual experience--bookstores, especially used bookstores, are favorite haunts of mine. I've been a book lover since I was a small child; I didn't just love the words, or the stories, or the fantastic facts contained inside, I loved the vessels themselves. I loved their pages, the curly intricacies of the type, the comfortable weight of a book in my hand, the smell of the paper and ink and binding. Repeating my mother, as young children are wont to do before they learn to come up with their own opinions, I would tell adults, "I'm a voracious reader." It was true, and I often had my nose in a book. The fact that I only ever had one true friend in childhood could have been a contributing factor to my five-book-a-week habit, or maybe it was a symptom and not a cause.
I don't remember exactly how I found out about The Book Thing. "A place that gives away books?" I thought to myself, "Nirvana." So my best friend and I took a trip down there one day, not knowing what to expect. It was like coming home to a place I always remembered in my bones but had not yet been, and it insinuated itself so fully into my consciousness that it's hard to think of a time when I didn't volunteer there. I have gained so much by giving my time, not only in books and the friendship of Russell and the other volunteers. I've learned things that make me a better--or at least, wiser--person.
There's a saying, "If you love something, set it free." People assume this applies only to people and animals, but giving of yourself is an experience unlike any other. You don't know how truly rich you are until you are willing to open your hands and give away what you hold dear, whether it's your time, your sweat, your happiness, or your possessions. In mahayana Buddhism, the loving-kindness meditations are supposed to help you realize what you yourself can gain by feeling compassion and wishing happiness for everyone, giving away what we are naturally inclined to hold selfishly close to us. Giving, and feeling compassion, doesn't just help the recipient of your good will... it helps you, too, which makes you a happier and better person, which affects those you have contact with, which makes them happier, better people, and so on. I have learned this firsthand through my involvement with The Book Thing, and I've reaped the rewards of having convictions, of working on something I believe in, something that I feel betters the world and everyone it touches. We have the opportunity to open our hands and give away not just books, but the love of books, and a feeling of hope because there are people out there who will devote themselves selflessly to helping others.
Everyone who sees what we do says "I'm glad somebody is doing this." People smile, eyes shining, when they descend tentatively those three enormous steps and wander into the basement and realize everything in here is free. Russell teases people who leave with only a handful of books--or worse, no books at all. "Is that all?" he ribs, "You need to be greedier." We do so love to see our babies leaving, the eager looks in the eyes of their new owners, excited to get home and enjoy whatever little treasure they found among the piles. You can never really count on finding what you want, but you often find something you didn't even know you were looking for.
Unfortunately, one of the other lessons I've learned is that when people say "I'm glad somebody is doing this," the unspoken ending to the sentence is "other than me." It's a great thing, but I can't help. Don't have the time, sorry. Can't lift boxes, bad back, sorry. You know I'd love to, but, but, but. While we get more books than we can handle, there are few volunteers, and we're always struggling for money. Giving away books to those who want and need them may not be as critical as feeding the hungry, but we still think it's an important mission. It hurts me that others don't seem to feel the same.
* * *
When you come to The Book Thing of Baltimore, you'll find yourself standing in an unfinished, 950-square-foot Baltimore row house basement filled to the breaking point with books and bodies. If not for the hand-painted red sandwich board signs proclaiming "FREE BOOKS!" we'd go completely unnoticed.
Going around the back of the row house, you have to descend three very tall, unwieldy steps into a little alcove, and from there into the cramped space of The Book Thing proper. The basement is wall-to-wall books; books in metal shelves, wooden shelves, shelves attached to wherever there is space, in the most unlikely places. Books in boxes, in clear plastic trays, in unsteady piles on the floor, stacked two or three deep on the shelves where possible. Some of the "aisles" aren't even passable since they are so full of books on that subject; they reach the ceiling, shoved between the pipes and wiring. I once pulled books out of an unused metal duct, where they had accidentally been crammed; there are always books underfoot. Every day there are book avalanches--it's just an unavoidable fact of life at The Book Thing.
We're a very informal operation. Russell Wattenburg, the founder, is a gruff, grumpy man who gives the impression of an out-of-work trucker. Rotund, bearded, often grubby, he is intimidating--and the last person you'd expect to be a champion of literature. He spends his days holed up in his tiny corner of the basement, on an elderly computer, trying to hustle funding and arrange large pick-ups and drop-offs. A native of Baltimore, and far from being a sophisticate, he remains among the books and dust, trying to keep his Thing running. But Russell has a soft side, and that's what led him to do something so humanitarian; his curmudgeonly outlook is simply part and parcel of operating a perennially struggling non-profit. I've come to proudly count him as a friend.
I've come to be friends with the other volunteers, too, some of them people who stand out as misfits, some of them people who seem to interact better with the written word than their fellow humans. But whatever our differences, we have our passion for books--for reading them, and for giving them to others--in common. We talk and laugh like old friends while we slave in the stacks. There's Mark, Diane, Dale, Gabriel, Mike, Les, the professor, and a handful of others whose faces I know but whose names escape me. We have a warm sense of being united in the same cause.
Volunteering at The Book Thing is a serious physical endeavor. Not only is most of what needs to be done physical labor--hauling boxes and boxes of books in and around, shifting hundreds of pounds every day--but the environment requires you to be careful, attentive, and surefooted. For several weeks straight, I worked in the business section, where there was a three foot high pile of books in addition to what was on the shelves. I had to forego my view of books as sacrosanct objects, and stand on top of the shifting pile to reach the highest shelves in a desperate attempt to make more room, to get those books off the floor. There are always piles of books that fall, or almost fall, and books on the floor to be dodged. Many a regular has been hit in the head by such an avalanche. Last Sunday I helped a diminutive young woman clamber out from the foreign languages section, where she'd been bricked in by boxes and trays of books that we were bringing inside. I offered her my hand and told her, "Booksurfing--not recommended. Take my word on it." Having fallen several times, I spoke from experience. I later heard her repeating that warning to someone else.
* * *
Despite all these good things, despite "I'm so glad someone is doing this," we're faced with having to close. The building we've been located in, the basement of which we rent, has been sold. Any day, the new owner can evict us, as he hasn't committed to letting us rent the basement for the $235 a month we've been paying. And anyway, we are suffering great pains from being in such a cramped location, without bathrooms, air circulation or even heat; a person in a wheelchair, or who walked with braces, could never hope to see the inside. I'm in a panic. I love The Book Thing so much, I love being able to do what we do so much, that I would be utterly heartbroken if we had to close over something so seemingly trivial. What's more, Baltimore would lose out, as clearly demonstrated by the twenty-thousand-some books we give away every weekend.
We need to find a new location to rent, and we haven't had any luck. We are poor--what can I say, books are nobody else's priority--and we need to find a location for free or very cheap. We need several thousand square feet, handicap access, a bathroom, heat, and ideally air conditioning. We're doing everything we can, canvassing maps and making phone calls, asking everyone we know; I've personally been contacting the neighborhood associations driving the revitalization of Baltimore, seeing if any of them have any ideas. So far, we've come up with a big fat zero.
If you have any ideas, or contacts, or best yet, a location to offer us, please let me know.
- Baltimore Sun - Recent story about losing our location.
- NPR - Highly recommended audio story on TBT, including an interview with Russell; scroll down to Book Donations. Thanks Rusty, I forgot about this.
- The Book Thing - Our web site, again.
- The Book Thing - Our press clippings page.