Baltimore’s Book Thing: New Yorkers Just Don’t Understand

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When I want to give out-of-town visitors a snippet of Baltimore life, I take them to the Book Thing in Waverly. We walk down a semi-creepy alley, aiming for a one-story warehouse. “Where are you taking me, again?” the visitor asks suspiciously. And then we get inside where the visitor sees the rows and rows of books — around 200,000 old dictionaries and romance novels and sci-fi trilogies and James Michener epics — and the visitor’s eyes get big, but in a good way. “Oh yeah,” I say casually. “All these books are free. Take as many as you want.” My New York friends are uneasy at this generosity, and are always looking for a secret tip jar or something. But no:  books at the Book Thing aren’t fake-free, or free-with-donation. They’re really free.

Over at the Electric Literature blog, another New Yorker muses about a recent visit to the Book Thing (“Soon The Book Thing seems instead like a Pynchon-concoction – a vast network of arcane knowledge spread around the globe by unseen hands”). He makes the classic first-time visitor mistake: picking up a book he already owns (“I already had a copy at home but… well… it was free”). A more seasoned Book Thing fan has a different approach:  “voids picking up books if he already owns at least one other book by that author which he hasn’t read yet.”

So, what is the value of a free book — or free culture in general? Take a look at Jansma’s ideas, then tell us yours in the comments below… or in the aisles of the Book Thing this weekend.



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