For 183 years, The Mercantile Library has brought the brightest literary lights to the Queen City. But even by its own standards, 2018 is shaping up to be a particularly good year.
When Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead speaks this summer in Cincinnati, he’ll stand in the same room where people listened to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe, David Brooks and Salman Rushdie, Julia Child and Sandra Cisneros.
In addition to Whitehead’s June visit, the Mercantile’s schedule includes a March performance by Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Steve Earle; an April visit by Susan Orlean, acclaimed journalist and author of The Orchid Thief, the book that inspired Spike Jonze’s award-winning film, Adaptation; and, in the fall, lectures from Jennifer Egan, another Pulitzer Prize winner, and Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, in conversation with Cincinnati native and acclaimed author Curtis Sittenfeld.
And those are only the highlights. The Mercantile Library will offer dozens of other author lectures, including ones from Brit Bennett and Min Jin Lee, and book discussions throughout the year.
“Our job is to introduce new voices and new perspectives to our community,” Mercantile Director John Faherty said. “That’s every library’s mission. … I believe, not just because I work at a library, but I truly believe that books and reading lead directly to empathy. And we need more empathy today.”
The Mercantile Library, founded in 1835 by a group of young merchants, is one of 18 membership libraries left in the United States. But you don’t have to be a member to go to Mercantile events. Prices vary, however, tickets for most events are $15 for non-members.
An individual annual membership costs $55 — and gives you a free pass to see Earle, Orlean, Whitehead, Egan and others.
The Mercantile’s reading room is a space worth visiting even without an author lecturing. Thanks to a shrewd lawyer, Alphonso Taft, father of President William Howard Taft, the library has a paid-off, 10,000-year lease on two floors of 414 Walnut Street, right in the heart of Cincinnati’s downtown. The Library isn’t so much hidden as easy to miss, but if you pay attention — there’s a historical marker on the sidewalk out front — you’ll spin through the revolving doors and take the express elevator up to the 11th floor. With polished wood floors, tall stacks of books, and deep leather couches, the Mercantile is a reader’s dream.
Silencia, a statue with her finger to her lips in a perpetual shushing motion, keeps watch over the space. However, while the library always feels peaceful, the reading room isn’t always quiet. Young professionals make the reading room their mobile office. Members clear away tables and book racks for a regular Saturday yoga practice. Happy hours and book launches fill the space with chatter.
The merchants who pooled their resources to start the library did so because they wanted to continue to educate and better themselves, and that plan seems to appeal to modern Cincinnatians, too. The Mercantile has 2,453 members, the highest membership in 100 years, and 7,013 people attended Mercantile events in 2017, a nearly 50 percent increase from the previous year.
“I consider that the greatest indicator of success,” Faherty said. “More people heard more things.”
The Mercantile Library Signature Events:
Steve Earle: 6 p.m. March 14; free to members, $45 non-members
Susan Orlean: 6 p.m. April 19; free to members, $20 non-members
Melissa Clark: 6 p.m. May 10; free to members; $20 non-members
Colson Whitehead: 6 p.m. June 13; free to members; $15 non-members
Liza Mundy: 6 p.m. July 11; free to members; $15 non-members
Jerald Cooper: 6 p.m. Aug. 23; free to members; $10 non-members
Luc Sante: 6 p.m. Sept. 13; free to members; $15 non-members
Jennifer Egan: 6 p.m. Oct. 17; free to members; $20 non-members
Margaret Atwood: 7 p.m. Nov. 3; $175 member, $200 non-members
Author bio: Hillary Copsey is a writer and editor enjoying all the exhibits, music, libraries and restaurants Cincinnati has to offer. Follow @HillaryCopsey on Twitter and Instagram.