Baltimore’s Book Thing


I just stumbled across yet another reason to love Baltimore. It’s called Book Thing.

According to the story, the founder of Book Thing – a guy named Russell Watterberg – was a bartender in Baltimore five years ago when the idea first struck him. He was there, at the bar, talking with drinking schoolteachers about books, and how hard it was for them to keep their classrooms stocked with them, when it occurred to him that he might be able to help. Inspired, Watterberg began spending his time away from work driving his van around, looking for books, which he would then distribute for free to teachers. And that’s how things started. Now, they’ve got a storefront, and, according to Book Thing, they give away 10,000 books every weekend that they’re open.

They have two rules.

One: They won’t give more than 150,000 books per day to any one person.

Two: Every book they give away is marked “This Book Is Free… Not For Resale.”

They do sell .02% of the books they take in, to cover overhead, but, otherwise, everything is given away. I think it’s a brilliant model, and I’d love to see it spread.

I remember, after Vonnegut’s death, how I asked people to send used copies of his books to suburban Minnesota to be distributed by a schoolteacher friend of mine there. The idea was to leave them around, to indoctrinate kids that might not otherwise be exposed. I loved that idea. I loved the notion that people could come together online and get brilliant, life-changing books into the hands of people who needed them. This, however, is so much bigger and more ambitious. It’s truly inspiring… Of course, I suppose it would put some of our favorite used book stores out of business, but maybe it would be worth the trade-off. I love the idea of a Book Thing in every city, constantly feeding books to people who wouldn’t otherwise have them. And, yes, I realize that libraries already exist, but this is different. I hesitate to say it’s better, but I really do think there are unique advantages to giving books away, no strings attached.

[The above image comes from the Chicago Tribune.]

This entry was posted in Art and Culture, entrepreneurism and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Steph's Dad
    Posted July 13, 2009 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Maybe the could move into all the closed down Borders stores, once that company melts away.

  2. Steve Swan
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    What we need here in Detroit/Ypsi is a Porn Thing, where people could leave used pornography. It would be an invaluable resource for young people. We could also explore a Pharmaceutical Drug Thing. Let’s make this happen, Michigan!

  3. jean
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Been there. It’s pretty cool and inspiring, right next to the open air farmer’s market. My sister says that everyone in Baltimore takes their books there, no Salvation Army, etc. etc. They all understand and support the mission. A kind of no-brainer way to address the very palpable social inequities in the city. It’s a great resource for kids and teachers, but also for book lovers. The stamp on each book effectively ruins its collectible value, so you can find that rare book you’ve been looking for without paying collector prices. I picked up Griel Marcus’ Lipstick Traces. You can donate to the cause if any pangs of guilt arise. Mostly it is inspiring in that it is totally democratic in its exercise. All stripes use the service and everyone mingles and behaves well (talkin’ books) while they are there. Baltimore is a great town in that it provides ample opportunities that way. Plus people just are what they are (flaming, preppy, freaky, street smart, sassy, uppity, ghetto, nerdy, foody, whatever…) without apologies. Baltimore is just a really great town…. against all odds.

    Maybe part of the freight house could be a free book exchange??? (The porn exchange happens on its own most of the time)

  4. Tom
    Posted July 15, 2009 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    Someone ought to start a free kids’ breakfast program down there. With bacon if you’d like.

    Also community self-defense classes.

  5. Cardio
    Posted July 15, 2009 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    How come no one mentioned the woman pooping in the bottom right corner of the photo?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


BUY LOCAL... or shop at Amazon through this link Banner Initiative Slade