Paradise Found? The Intriguing Saga of Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library

The Queen City is primarily known for its trendy food spots and vibrant art scene. Tucked within Cincinnati’s business district, however, you’ll also find a literary relic: one of the country’s last-standing membership libraries, the Mercantile Library, which has survived various moves and multiple fires, and today is enjoying the security of a 10,000-year lease. Cover graphic by Taylor Vanek for Midstory.

Does a tree really fall if no one’s there to hear it? Is a book really read if no one’s there to discuss it?

In Cincinnati, on the 11th floor of one of the city’s oldest buildings, readers just might be able to find the solace they really seek — each other.

Enter: the Mercantile Library.

Image courtesy of the Mercantile Library.

The Mercantile Library found its start in 1835 under a different name, the “Young Men’s Mercantile Library Association,” the product of 45 young merchants who yearned for a space to gather and share ideas.

These sorts of spaces — subscription libraries — were common at the time, taking inspiration from Benjamin Franklin’s Library Company of Philadelphia, which was founded about a century earlier in 1731.

There was a general consensus that education could provide power — a means to elevate one’s social and professional standing — and places like the Mercantile Library were perfect for cultivating this newfound fervor for knowledge.

Yet, it wasn’t always smooth sailing for “The Merc.”

The library first saw light in a collection of veritably strange places — over a fire house, to start, and then a small room near Pearl Street Market — a byproduct of the young associates’ struggle to enlist new members and, thus, take in funds via dues. Yet, as its collection and prominence grew, the Mercantile Library secured a spot in the Cincinnati College Building on Walnut Street, where it’s still found today.

Good news, of course, apart from one small detail: The building caught on fire in 1845.

(Note: If there’s anything to know about the Mercantile Library’s colloquial “lore,” it’s this.)

Fortunately, most of the library’s collection was saved, and by then it had built up a sufficiently prestigious reputation and clientele that it received $10,000 in donations for rebuilding. The building’s owner, ever grateful, granted the library a ten-thousand year lease, which sustains the library to this day.

The fire of 1845 wouldn’t be the last — indeed, there was another in 1869 — and it certainly wasn’t the library’s only hurdle. The library has also survived through the Civil War, the Great Depression and both World Wars.

The Mercantile Library building in 1902. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The Mercantile Library building in 2019. Image courtesy of Warren LeMay via Wikimedia Commons. 

But this tumultuous history is exactly what makes the Mercantile Library the literary landmark it is today. It’s a battered-but-resilient “time capsule,” filled with books and art, literal keep-sakes of the city’s past.

“We’ve been collecting artworks since we were founded, just like we’ve been collecting books,” Cedric Rose, Mercantile Library’s head librarian and collector said. “It just really reflects our membership and our board’s taste over time.”

The library currently holds the city’s oldest art collection — boasting prints by Carlo Ponti, for example, and notable marble statues, including of “Silencia,” the library’s proverbial mascot, and of real historical figures, like Charles Dickens and George Washington. 

As for the library’s literary collection, it’s huge — featuring approximately 85,000 volumes, all of which are easily accessible to the library’s members, a benefit of the library’s smaller size. Reservation times are shorter, with less competition for books — which is especially beneficial, since the collection is “tailor-made” for the library’s readership, developed through user insight.

“[It’s] one of the values of joining,” Rose said. “If you’re looking for a book that’s of general interest, we’ll buy the book, you get to use the book, and then it becomes part of the collection here — and, hopefully, [also] the subject of a conversation our members are having.”

While public libraries follow a similar system of buying books based on their users’ interests, it manifests differently in the “Merc,” since they’re catering to a much smaller audience. The process is much more personal — allowing for a literary collection that reflects their readers’ quirks and interests.

But the Mercantile Library is more than just books and art.

“It’s the smallest library I’ve worked in, but probably the library that does the most — the widest variety — of things,” Rose said. “It’s a very jack-of-all-trades kind of place.”

The Mercantile Library hosts events ranging from author appearances and panel discussions to wine tastings and the occasional yoga hour — in addition, of course, to its “Signature Events”: dynamic, annual lectures on broad subjects like politics, literature, religion and art. Past lecturers include Herman Melville, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood and Julia Child. 

Through these events, the library provides a space for readers to step outside the bounds of their well-loved books and really connect.

“People develop friendships here,” Rose said. “Historically, there have been [generations of families that are members], like their kids come here and they still [feel they] belong here.” 

These friendships are what help foster the warm, communal feel at the “Merc,” which might be harder to come by in other libraries with a bigger readership.

Image courtesy of the Mercantile Library via Facebook.

While these events are considered the library’s primary “benefit,” there’s more, still, to be said about Mercantile’s unique role in Cincinnati’s community.

For Taylor Lasley, the library isn’t so much a social space as it is a place to get in the “zone.” 

“In downtown Cincinnati, or Cincinnati in general, there’s not a whole lot of good ‘focus-on-work’ stuff without a ton of distractions around you.” Lasley said. “When you go [to the Mercantile Library], it’s got the Wi-Fi and everything, but it’s so calm. … It makes me focus more and actually get work done, and then, when you look up, it’s really pretty.”

“Pretty” might even be an understatement. Marked by dark hardwood floors, rich floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and the library’s signature marble busts, the “Merc” appears every bit like the aforementioned “time-capsule” it is.

“When you go into the other libraries that were probably built in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it feels, for lack of a better term, prison-esque, where you’re kind of stuck in this box. It’s dark.” Lasley said. “I go [to Mercantile] more for the aesthetic appeal of feeling like I’m somewhere special.”

Ultimately, Cincinnati’s hidden literary gem has something for everyone. It’s a hub for authors and readers alike to discuss their most-recent reads; a database full of books and media that reflects Cincinnati’s history; and, perhaps most importantly, plenty of cozy places to escape into a good book.


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