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The Baltimore 'Book Thing' is give and take

Russell Wattenberg had an idea: Give books away – preferably in bulk.

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Does Russell Wattenberg love books? And how!

"Russell believes every book has a home somewhere," says Dick Macksey. Indeed, he spends his days trying to place millions of unwanted or abandoned books, orphans, so to speak. "I think he gets up in the morning to find people who will want all these books, as if they [the books] have a personality, " says Mr. Macksey, a friend, a member of the board of directors, and a volunteer at Mr. Wattenberg's peculiar charity.

You could call it an idée fixe, a notion that's put a half nelson on his brain, an obsession. Or you could call it what everybody else does: The Book Thing. That's the name Wattenberg chose when he started to gather books to give away at schools, in jails, on street corners, and from a dank basement near The Johns Hopkins University campus.

"At no point did I consciously think I was going to give away books," says Wattenberg. Nor was he animated by an epiphany of some sort. It was more like a benign impulse, such as that felt by someone holding a door for someone in need: no big thing for the door opener, important for the one enabled to pass.

Thirteen words describe Wattenberg's purpose: "taking books people don't want and giving them to people who want them."

Wattenberg is 35, big, somewhat on the wide side. Much of his face hides behind a beard as big as a cloud. He's unkempt, favoring T-shirts from thrift shops. He draws a meager salary for his labors and lives like a monk in a small apartment with his cat, Miss Marple. He's amiable, a bit quick with the Brooklyn back talk, and actually charismatic, at least to some among the scores of volunteers who keep his enterprise going.

He's modest, claiming he's recycling rather than gift-giving: "I'm a middleman; say somebody has a load of National Geographic magazines and offers them to a school. The principal can't take them. We take them. Then teachers from that school come and take them back to the school.


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