Billed as “the most beautiful library in Cincinnati,” The Mercantile is a membership only library located in the downtown area. Marina and I set out to explore the library as part of our series on our favorite libraries of Ohio.
The Mercantile Cincinnati History
According to their website, libraries and books in general were exclusively available to the wealthy in the early 1800s. Most collections were housed on university campuses or in the mansions of the rich. Because people were anxious to learn and have access to books, membership-based libraries were founded along the Eastern seaboard in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston and here, in Cincinnati.
In 1835, a group of 45 young men who were merchants and shopkeepers banded together to establish Cincinnati’s membership library, The Mercantile. The goal of the library was self-improvement and the founders purchased books and subscribed to newspapers from all over the world.
In addition to being a collection of books, The Mercantile gave the founders a physical space to discuss books, business and politics. In fact, it was here that the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce was established in 1939.
The library has survived two fires and is the oldest membership library west of the Allegheny Mountains. The space was secured in 1845 with the signing of a 10,000 year lease.
The Mercantile Collection
The current collection at The Mercantile is just over 85,000 volumes. Per the website, most volumes are contained in the North Stacks. The South Stacks, however, are home to poetry, Shakespeare and an extensive travel and geography section.
The volumes here are representative of the types of works that you would find at most libraries. There is a large fiction section, which was not allowed at the library until 1872.
The oldest work in the library dates from the 1600s and the collection includes a number of rare works. In possession is a bound first set of Dickens and original early works of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
About The Mercantile
The Mercantile, or The Merc for short, is more than just the sum of it’s statistics, volumes and collections. It’s a beautiful space with richly hued wooden floorboards and windows stretching toward the high ceilings, revealing portions of the Cincinnati skyline.
There are secret nooks with leather-clad chairs where a reader can tuck in and explore the written word. And there are large oak tables with sturdy chairs for the serious researcher.
The artwork comprises one of the oldest collections in the Queen City. There are busts everywhere, even in the stacks. The artwork has been collected over the history of the library, much of it from overseas.
In addition to being a respite from the city outside and a unique world in which one can lose themselves in a book, The Mercantile opens itself to more diverse activities. The library hosts multiple lecture series which have included such notable lecturers as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Julia Child.
In addition to hosting lectures, the space is used for performing arts, public discussions and yoga. The site also plays hosts to the Cincinnati poet laureate.
Membership at The Mercantile
While anyone can visit the library, which I highly encourage, full benefits are reserved for members. Prices begin as low as $30 per year for students, $110 for a household and beyond for additional giving levels.
Membership opens up the full promise of the library to the reader. As a member you are able to check out materials and use the space for study and research. You may also use the Wi-Fi and have access to guest lecturers including the Signature Series, for free. Members are also invited to participate in twice-weekly yoga.
It is such a nice place to just be, to just exist. I think that I could sit for hours in the reading room, gazing through the large windows and listening to the traffic below. While city libraries with their efficient spaces, sound control panels and fluorescent lighting have a place in this world, The Mercantile is something entirely different. It truly has to be experienced.
Thanks for finding The Mercantile with us today. Ohio is full of treasures like this that make our state, and the cities within, unique and special. Spaces like this are just waiting to be discovered, and we hope our articles help you to find these hidden gems.
If you haven’t already, check out our articles on some of our favorite libraries in Central Ohio. Wagnalls Memorial in Lithopolis is a unique and beautiful private library, the Columbus Main Library has a fascinating history, and Orton Hall at The Ohio State University is a step back in time.
If you’re looking for more to discover in Cincinnati, be sure to stop by the Over the Rhein neighborhood, It’s a fascinating shopping and entertainment district in downtown Cincinnati. And don’t forget to make a visit to Ohio’s just famous grocery store: Jungle Jim’s.
Be sure to stop back frequently, we publish a new article at least once each week and you don’t want to miss it! And, as always, thank you for sharing our content to your social media. We want to share all the amazing things that Ohio has to offer.