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A tour of Cincinnati's 'best kept secret': The Mercantile Library

Posted at 10:13 AM, Sep 13, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-13 10:13:01-04

Tucked away in the heart of downtown Cincinnati is one of the city's best kept secrets that few know exists.

The Queen City is home to one of the last surviving membership libraries in the country, The Mercantile Library, where some of the most influential authors have graced the halls over the decades.

Located on the 11th and 12th floors of the historic Mercantile Library Building on Walnut Street, The Mercantile Library was started in 1835 by a group of 45 merchants in Cincinnati who wanted to create a new opportunity. It was a time during which books were expensive and public libraries did not exist. The group combined their resources (and books) to create Cincinnati's first membership library.

"I think we have a long history of being the best kept secret in Cincinnati," said executive director John Faherty. "And I don't know who that serves."

The Mercantile Library, located on Walnut Street in downtown Cincinnati, is one of the city's best kept secrets. It's one of the few membership libraries left in the country.  Emily Maxwell | WCPO

When you step off the elevator to the 11th floor, you're greeted by large wooden doors with glass window panes that lead to an expansive open room. After a few feet, you enter a time warp. The staff has carefully maintained the library's historic flare with dark wood detailing and furniture, Victorian rugs, and the distinct scent of old pages, a soft vanilla-like smell that lingers in the air.

"I hear a lot of, 'This looks like a Harry Potter library,' " Faherty said. "Some people gasp when they walk in."

The library houses more than 85,000 books of all genres.

The Mercantile has a history of hosting famous guest writers over the years, which has included names like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville and Julia Child. That tradition has continued over the decades. This November, the library is hosting a gala with Margaret Atwood of "The Handmaid's Tale" at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Cincinnati, which they expect to draw a large crowd.

Faherty said membership continues to grow with currently more than 2,500 members, which is the largest number the staff has on record since World War I. Memberships are $55 per year.

Faherty gives WCPO a tour inside one of Cincinnati's best kept secrets in the video above. It's in a location most Cincinnatians have probably walked past many times without every noticing.