Downtown Cincinnati's Mercantile Library reopens while continuing to cater to members' needs

Posted at 3:38 PM, May 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-21 19:48:51-04

CINCINNATI — If walls truly could talk, those of the Mercantile Library would have quite the story to tell.

The likes of Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William M. Thackeray and Ralph Waldo Emerson have delivered lectures inside the library at 414 Walnut St., Downtown.

Since mid-March, though, the library -- which occupies the 11th and part of the 12th floor of the building bearing its name -- has been closed. The extra-quiet weeks have added a new chapter to its long history.

"We've been a library for 185 years, and to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time we've ever had to close," said John Faherty, the Mercantile Library's executive director since 2015. "We didn't close for the Civil War. We didn't close for the 1918 pandemic. So, since 1835, COVID was the first thing to close the library."

Faherty said closing the library as part of Ohio's stay-at-home measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus "felt weird," but he added it was still the right thing to do.

The private library adapted as best it could for its members.

"Meet people where they are," Faherty said. "And 'where they are' was in their own homes. So, we had to bring the library to them."

That meant turning all of the library's book clubs and group discussions into virtual events.

"Every book we've bought for the last couple of months have been e-books," Faherty added.

He also said as the Mercantile allowed members back inside the library on Wednesday, the library would continue offering some of those online events.

"Even in some imaginary time when everything is fine, we'll still do some things virtually," Faherty said. "We'll still post poetry everyday."

Faherty said he feels comfortable with the measures the Mercantile's staff has taken to keep everyone safe and that it "feels good to be open."

The library has removed chairs, added tables, set aside time each day for people in high-risk groups and is offering hand sanitizer. It also is mandating all visitors and staff wear masks.

"If you don't want to come up to the library, but you want books, you call us, and we'll talk you through the process," Faherty said. "We really want to be respectful of where everybody is and be open for them."

Faherty and his small staff did not know what to expect from patrons when the Mercantile first reopened.

"It's been quiet but not overly quiet," Faherty said. "We've been counting them. We've had 17 people here today, which would not be a big day but it feels pretty gratifying. People have come in, and they've been really happy that we're open."

For anyone not a member of the Mercantile Library looking for a quiet spot outside of their home to read a book, write, or perhaps enjoy a moment of silence, Faherty said gaining access to the library is pretty simple.

"It's a membership library, but anyone who wants to become a member can become a member," he said. "You don't need a sponsor, and you don't even need a lot of money. If you wanna pay $55 a year, you are a full member, and you will love this place."

The Mercantile Library is currently open 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday–Friday and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday. All guests must wear masks inside the library, and the first half hour of each day is set aside for members in the at-risk category. For more information, visit