Cincinnati's Mercantile Library

Cincinnati's Mercantile Library

Libraries were a place of adventure for me as a child. I spent countless hours rummaging through books, living out fantasies in pages and inserting myself into history. I got that same sense of wonder and awe when I stepped into The Mercantile Library in downtown Cincinnati. Founded in 1835 as the Young Men's Mercantile Library Association, the library currently resides on the 11th and 12th floors at 414 Walnut Street, where its been since 1908.  


I was fortunate to have a tour of the Mercantile Library with author and Religion News Service blogger Jana Riess which included some of the history of the building itself and look at some of the old and oversized books with the library's Executive Director, John Faherty. He described the Mercantile as a "working library" and not a museum.

Amy B. Hunter, Literary Programs and Marketing Manager for the Mercantile Library, brought out some of the oldest books in the library's collection for us to look at. There's something otherworldly about scanning pages bound in 1614 on subjects like Egyptian Hieroglyphics, you can almost feel the knowledge pouring off the paper. I've always believed in the power of reading and transformation. It was this method that took me to London and Paris years before I would ever step on an airplane.


A Lease Like No Other

Throughout its history, the Mercantile Library has hosted Herman Mellville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson and many other great wordsmiths. The lease for the library at its current location was signed for a 10,000-year occupancy, cost $10,000 and was written by Alphonso Taft, the father of President William Howard Taft.

Just the look and feel of the small library was magical. The rich wood and dark metal cut a stark contrast to the bright book covers and white busts. Riess talked about how some people come and eat lunch and read the newspaper in the library, and I can see why. The deep brown leather in the couches mixes with the wood flooring and sparse decoration to create an inviting atmosphere for study, deep thinking or simple enjoyment.


In a 2014 article written by Faherty when he worked for the Cincinnati Enquirer, he mused on whether the Mercantile Library was the "city's prettiest place?"

The floors are wood, the windows are gigantic and the air is filled with the unmistakable smell of old books. There are glass floors in the stacks to let light filter through because the library was built before the invention of the light bulb. -John Faherty.


If you find yourself in Cincinnati, make sure to stop by the Mercantile Library, a haven of knowledge, beauty and wonder in the heart of the Queen City.

Thanks to Jana Riess for showing us this magical place. Be sure to check out her books The Twible and Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray and Still Loving My NeighborYou can find Riess' blog for Religion News Service here.