There is no place like The Mercantile Library in Cincinnati.
It overloads the senses in the best way. Soft echoes of delicately turned pages, creaking floorboards, and crackling wooden chairs fill your ears. The warm breath of a hissing radiator whispers on the back of your neck, strongly suggesting you remove the wool cap from your head. The heavy aroma of musty paper and varnished wood weave its way into your nose. Eggshell columns and ivory busts appear as buoys floating in a sea of inviting brown, tan, and mustard walls. The taste of coffee from the local shop downstairs lingers on your tongue.
It's a perfect place, both in utility and atmosphere, to do anything requiring reading. You don't get that with other places. Of course, its appeal isn't surprising; it's had many years to slow cook this recipe.
During those many years, the library adapted to modernization and changing attitudes. Below is an outline of the history of the esteemed 183-year-old organization. Above is a gallery of images that attempt to capture its physical beauty. Like one of those novelty Choose Your Own Adventure books popular 30 years ago, the decision how to absorb this story is yours.
I'm choosing the time machine below. Allons-y!
NECESSITY BREEDS INNOVATION
On April 18th, 1835, 45 merchants piled into a second-floor room of a fire brigade's headquarters on 4th Street. Cincinnati was rapidly growing, Halley's Comet was due for a return visit, and young, undereducated men seeking self-improvement within their mercantile trades lacked a useful resource to improve their skills. After looking at their options, the determined men resolved to open an exclusive library for their kind. Together, they named it the Young Men's Mercantile Library Association.
In that second floor room on 4th Street, they began writing the prologue to a Queen City story that would never end. The Young Men's Mercantile Library Association, later shortened to The Mercantile Library, has since become one of the city's oldest-surviving institutions. Ironically, the library without an end began at the end of the work week. It was a Saturday.
JUST GETTING STARTED
The library's first temporary space was on the second story of a building on the west side of Main Street below Pearl Street (where Current at the Banks sits today). Prospective members had to be young and studying a mercantile trade. Artisans, mechanics, and "professional men" were excluded from joining. The strict rules didn't stop there, either. Library-goers were required to speak in whispers, they couldn't smoke, they couldn't spit on the floor (apparently an issue of the day), they couldn't share books with non-members, and steep fines were served when periodicals were damaged.
In the beginning, library hours were relegated to evenings and fluctuated by the season; winter months saw longer open hours due to earlier sunsets, and summer hours saw less open hours due to longer days.
Humble beginnings made the acquisition of books, newspapers, and journal subscriptions the main priority. Despite raising $1,800 in memberships during its first three months, without further capital to purchase resources, the library couldn't serve its intended purpose.
While physical reading material was the intended draw for the association, lectures also proved lucrative. In December of 1835, the library held its first lecture, officially kicking off a tradition that would later define a huge part of the library's legacy over the course of its following 183 years.
Despite a strong start, not everything was rosy. Theft, vandalism, board turnover, and financial problems relentlessly plagued the library. Internal squabbling about myriad issues both big and small remained regular parts of board meetings. Those problems, though new to the library in its infancy, continued to disturb the association for years.
Financial and personal issues aside, the library's first real tragedy happened on January 19th, 1845 when the building it occupied caught fire. Members living nearby stepped in and successfully saved most of the collection. That which didn't burn was moved to the nearby First Presbyterian Church where the board gathered to figure out what to do.
Unbeknownst to them at the time, the fire yielded an opportunity that went on to alter the course of the library's future forever.
THE DEAL OF 100 CENTURIES
After the fire, Cincinnati College trustees met with the library and formulated what became the Mercantile's most valuable treasure: a $10,000 lease that guaranteed adequate residency on the current site regardless of what buildings were constructed there for the following 10,000 years. In other words, the library was guaranteed space in whatever structure was built on that plot of land for an annual fee of $1 until the year 11845 AD.
The deal was incredible. After a new four-story building on the site was completed, the library reopened. The 1850s saw honorary memberships deeded to women, as well as notable lectures from personalities like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herman Melville (the latter of whom received tepid reviews for his talk on Roman statues).
WAR & CHANGE
The Civil War put a dent in memberships, and numbers understandably declined. While frequenters of the library enlisted or left Cincinnati altogether, use of periodicals increased as remaining subscribers sought news of the war. By 1865, memberships had fallen a staggering 35%.
When the war concluded, the first female assistant librarian was hired in 1865, and the first African American member joined in 1872. The library had done away with its young white male provision in favor of greater diversity.
Alas, a fire threatened to end the library once more in 1869. As before, members stepped in to save the majority of the collection before it could burn, but the resulting catastrophe sent books and furniture owned by the library to different locations around town until the College Building they formerly occupied was rebuilt. Eleven months later, they erected a new building and the library had a home once more.
But this fire didn't unintentionally help the library the way it did in 1845. They lost 622 books to flame, memberships declined, and many of their lectures proved unsuccessful as money-makers. To make matters worse, the troubles suffered in their early years (theft, vandalism, etc.) never ceased.
By the end of the 19th Century, board members talked about a new building for the library. The Thomas Emery's Sons Company approached them with a 12-story design and asked for their guaranteed occupancy. After the library rigorously negotiated terms and conditions favorable to their association, the building was finished and the library moved into its current space on the 11th and 12th floor of the new Mercantile Library Building in 1904.
The library had a new, fresh location with an incredible view of the river that it never had before. Subsequent lectures in the new space proved especially popular; President William Howard Taft gave a speech there in 1910 to 650 members.
Things had greatly improved for the organization.
A PERIOD OF LISTLESSNESS
It quickly grew stale, however. After 1910, the library entered a period of lethargy. It was no longer young or relegated to its mercantile-centric beginnings and had lost sight of its original purpose despite its spatial advancements.
The Great Depression and two world wars injured membership numbers further. By 1945, the library had half the subscribers it had in 1929. Downtown experienced a drop in residents as people moved to suburbia, and the advancement of television accelerated a decline in reading. The library was in trouble.
Even a significant renovation in 1964 didn't help matters. Membership numbers fell, bottoming out at the lowest levels the library had seen since the Civil War a century prior.
SPRINGING TO ACTION
After 50 years, a change was desperately needed. That's when Jean Springer was appointed librarian in 1969. She helped revive the ailing library over the course of a celebrated 24-year career.
Springer shook up the organization. She hired young employees, urged performing artists to use the space, encouraged Downtowners to eat their lunch there, improved the building with AC and other technological advancements, organized yearly trips for its members, and enlivened library events.
Under her management, membership numbers climbed. Her belief that "your face is your library card" contrasted with the previous administration's often unfriendly demeanor. By the end of her tenure, the library boasted nearly 900 memberships. She'd set a new precedent, which her successors, Albert Pyle (1994-2015) and John Faherty (2015-present), continued.
The Mercantile Library began humbly, experienced resounding successes, survived fires and periods of despair, and eventually found stability. Today, the library boasts around 3,000 memberships.
Those 45 men who met in 1835 began penning a story without an end. The Mercantile Library is still going strong, still adapting to today's modern world, and still maintaining the key components of its legacy that celebrate its history and mission.
It was given the opportunity to stay in Cincinnati for 10,000 years. I only hope I'm privileged enough to miss the final chapter of its indelible story.
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The Mercantile Library is located at 414 Walnut St. (45202) on the 11th floor of the Mercantile Library Building.
Research help for this piece was provided by Robert C. Vitz's book "At the Center: 175 Years at Cincinnati's Mercantile Library."