The Book Thing of Baltimore

by Bruce Willen

“Be greedy.”

This command is often the first thing you hear when you walk into the Book Thing of Baltimore. Actually it’s half command, half plea. Within the walls of their unassuming cinder-block building, the Book Thing houses more free books than the staff knows what to do with, and the patrons of this Baltimore institution are here to help with this problem. Typically this involves grabbing an empty cardboard box and packing it with as many or more books than you can carry.

Did I mention that the books are all free? Really. There’s no catch—you can take as many or as few as you want (according to the Book Thing’s website, the upper limit is “150,000 books per day, per person”)—and thousands of new titles arrive every week. For more than a decade, Baltimore readers have spent their weekends plundering the shelves of this dusty warehouse that mixes the public spirit of a lending library or used bookstore with the anarchic informality of a box of books discarded on the street corner.

The Book Thing is a dangerous place for a hoarder, designer, or book lover. Many times I have arrived looking for summer reading material, only to walk out with a sagging liquor box stuffed with shelf-worn, long-forgotten titles that I picked up solely due to their striking cover artwork or jacket designs. Browsing through the stacks, one might pull out a novel exquisitely attired in a cover design by a well-known graphic artist such as Ben Shahn, Paul Rand, or Robert Brownjohn. Or more likely, an equally well-dressed textbook or a twenty-five-cent paperback vividly illustrated or lettered by some anonymous talent.

These discoveries and small revelations are the real pleasures of the Book Thing. Long after many of the subjects and authors have fallen into obsolescence and obscurity, their pages find a place in an ugly building in a hidden corner of Baltimore, wrapped in forgotten designs created by often-uncredited artists. It is the lovely nature of printed ephemera to fade away and disappear. But at the Book Thing, each plywood shelf becomes a pedestal for the bound pages of yesteryear before they vanish out the door, one more time.

Bruce Willen is one of the founding partners of Baltimore-based design studio Post Typography.