After fire, locals donate thousands of books to charity in Maryland

BALTIMORE -- When the doors open on an unassuming warehouse in Baltimore, folks flood in with buckets and baskets and boxes. Everyone is eager for their weekly sustenance. 

Russell Wattenberg is the man in charge. And over the past 17 years, he has catered to thousands of hungry minds. 

Russell calls this "The Book Thing," because it's not a library, and it's definitely not a store. 

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  Russell Wattenberg, the man in charge of the "Book Thing."

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"All free. It cuts down on robberies. We encourage shoplifters," Russell said. 

Supplied by donations and run by volunteers, here you can take and keep whatever books you want -- as many as you want, and people do hoard, although often for very good reason. 

Kim Shibley is a regular. 

"Everything is going back to my classroom," Shibley said. "I'm a teacher in a Baltimore city school and I stock all the classrooms with these books."

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Kim Shibley at Baltimore's the "Book Thing." 

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The place really is a gift to this city. And like any gift that's been around awhile, there was no way for the people of Baltimore to fully appreciate it until it was gone. 

"The number of people who come up to me with tears streaming down their face -- I didn't realize people cared as much as they do," Russell said. 

In March 2016, a fire destroyed "The Book Thing." For many small nonprofits, there would be no climbing back from such a devastating loss. 

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In March of 2016 a fire destroyed 'The Book Thing."  

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But in the days that followed, the people of Baltimore responded with cash donations and fundraisers, and more than a few new books. There are 7,000 boxes of books here now, just waiting to be freed from their cardboard confines. 

"The Book Thing" reopened last month. And no one is taking it for granted anymore, especially not Russell. 

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Baltimore's "Book Thing."

CBS News

"I don't have the patience to teach somebody to read," he said. "I don't have the diligence to be a writer. The only way I see to contribute the written word is by doing this." 

Russell Wattenberg. The name may never grace a cover, but he's already one of America's literary greats. 

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  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.