Wednesday, January 19, 2000

Mercantile movin' on up

Library's growth spirals into a room restored to its 1903 glory

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The library on the 11th floor of the Mercantile Library Building at 414 Walnut St.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        Of all the curiosities of the Mercantile Library, the spiral staircase has been the oddest. Nestled in a niche between the elevator shaft and the Ladies Reading Room, the cast iron corkscrew steps lead to nowhere.

        Now the stairway to nowhere is going somewhere. The wall at the top of the stairs has been breached, leading to a foyer and lecture room on the floor above the library.

        “We desperately needed the extra space,” says library president John Ryan, “and we needed to separate meetings and events from the reading room.”

165 years old
        Always a quiet retreat for downtown workers, the 165-year-old Mercantile, Cincinnati's oldest library, is expanding its activities, adding new programs and events.

The spiral staircase to the 12th floor could have renewed purpose.
(Yoni Pozner photo)
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        “We are becoming a more and more event-oriented institution,” says board member Lois Rosenthal.

        There's a new Winter Author Series, starting next week, and a noontime music series, which is free and open to the public.

        This week is the start of a five-week Winter Book Course taught by University of Cincinnati associate professor of English Jonathan Kamholtz.

        The annual Niehoff Lecture brings a major author to the library each year. There is a series of play readings by Theater of the Mind, and other meetings, events — even dances.

        Other organizations, including the Council on World Affairs, Contemporary Arts Center and the Taft Museum of Art, use the library for special events.

        Located on the 11th floor of the Mercantile Library Building at 414 Walnut St., downtown, this is one of the oldest places in Cincinnati, and it looks it. The portrait paintings and marble busts in the room are part of the oldest public art collection in the city, and the books in the carved bookcases date back more than two centuries.

No ringing phones
        “It is a low-tech place,” says Steve Frank, a downtown stockbroker who brings a sandwich and stock reports to the library almost every day. “My business is like living in a pin-ball machine. There are no ringing phones here. I come here for refuge, to recharge my batteries and to read the old books.”

  Everyone is welcome to visit the Mercantile Library, which has its own elevator to the 11th floor of the Mercantile Building, 414 Walnut St., downtown.
  Most programs are open to the public, but use of the collection is restricted to members.
  Hours: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday.
  Anyone may become a member. A basic annual subscription of $45 provides use of the library to all members of a household. Full-time students can join for $15. Information: 621-0717.
        Barbara Ahting, a downtown worker who lunches and reads here four or five days a week, agrees. “This place is a well-kept secret, and I hope it stays that way.”

        Those who come to the library for a quiet hour often find a meeting, lecture or concert during the noon hour.

        “It has always been the intention to combine a reading room and a lecture hall in one institution,” says librarian Albert Pyle. “The library started bringing major authors to Cincinnati to lecture in the 1840s. And there have always been local speakers, talking on law, ethics, religion.”

        Among those who have appeared at the Mercantile are Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, John Updike, Tom Wolfe and Ray Bradbury.

10,000-year lease
        Started in 1835 as the Young Men's Mercantile Library Association (William Henry Harrison was a founding member), the library holds what is believed to be the world's only 10,000-year renewable lease at its site, although it is in its fourth building. This library was built in 1903.

        “When this building was built, our lease required that we would have the same floor plan as the previous library,” Mr. Pyle says, “but because of the space used by the elevator and stairway, we were given an additional 900 square feet on the 12th floor at the top of the spiral staircase.”

        The 12th floor space was an all-purpose room, used for lectures, and the game room for the chess club, which was associated with the library. By 1968, library membership had slumped to fewer than 300, so the 12th floor was leased for law offices.

        Today, with 1,050 family memberships, the board of trustees has raised $250,000 to restore the lecture hall, along with a foyer and catering facilities, at the top of the stairs. One of the fund-raisers for the new lecture room was a 1998 lecture by Angela's Ashes author Frank McCourt, which sold out at $125 a ticket.

        There was no trace of the old lecture room, so it had to be re-created from scratch. It will be completed in the next few weeks. Even the modern windows are being replaced with the kind used in 1903. The doors of the old bookcases, in storage for decades, are back in place.

No distractions
        Major evening events, such as the Winter Author Reading Series, attract more than 200 people and take place in the main reading room. But most lunch hour events will move upstairs, so members who spend their lunch hours at the library reading the latest magazines, newspapers and books will not be distracted by speakers.

        Although the shelves are filled with old books, Mercantile members read the latest best sellers, too.

        “We are a working library,” Mr. Pyle says. “We continue to buy books and we try to buy what our members want.”

        The Winter Author Series starts next Wednesday with Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family (Random House; $15.95 paperback). It's a non-fiction account of the author's South Carolina ancestors and the slaves who created their wealth.

        March 1, Kentucky author Bobbie Ann Mason will talk about her most recent memoir, Clear Springs (Random; $25). Ms. Mason is a vivid storyteller of the modest lives of small towns and countrysides. Her Vietnam War novel In Country (Harperperennial Library; $13) became a major motion picture.

        Novelist Ernest Gaines will speak on April 18. Based on his own youth on a Louisiana plantation, his novel A Lesson Before Dying (Vintage Books; $12 paperback) won a 1993 Book Critics Circle Award. He is also the author of the 1971 novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, an undisputed classic of American literature that became a popular television movie starring Cicely Tyson.

        Tickets for the series are $25 for library members and $35 for non-members. Individual lectures are $10 for library members and $12 for non-members. All lectures begin at 6 p.m. Information: 621-0717.


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