Journey to the Center: How Albert Pyle plotted a new future for the Mercantile Library


On July 31, Albert Pyle will retire after 22 years as executive director of downtown’s Mercantile Literary Arts Center.
 
What’s that, you say? Never heard of the place? Or perhaps you’re thinking you’ve heard of the Mercantile Library — could this be the same thing? 
 
Well, yes and no. Pyle’s official position has indeed been director of the 180-year-old membership Mercantile Library. But during that time the institution’s role as a traditional circulating library has waned as a result of the Internet-spawned revolution in delivery of content as well as other social and cultural changes.
 
To survive, the Library under Pyle’s leadership has sought to reinvent itself as the premier literary center of the region with lectures, book discussion groups, author appearances and the occasional arts-related concert and film screening.
 
And it seems to be working. Pyle certainly leaves satisfied. He is retiring just a week before he turns 70, the age at which he’d  said at which he would leave.
 
When originally invited to apply for the position being vacated by Jean Springer, Pyle was a freelance writer and mystery novelist with some previous administrative experience. He also was a stay-at-home dad to two daughters while his wife, Deborah, worked as business manager at Cincinnati Magazine. He gave up most of his writing for this job, although he penned that magazine’s Dr. Know column for a period.
 
In retirement, he plans to read “while the light is still good,” he’s said in a letter to members.


A love affair with books and writers
 
“I’ve had a great couple of decades to do what I wanted to do that seemed right for the times,” Pyle says on a recent afternoon at the Library. “Whoever they hire next will be able to go right on doing that.”
 
He’s saying this while seated in a comfortable chair facing a wooden table in a corner of the Library’s spacious reading room. It’s an agreeably relaxed and refreshing place. The windows let in light but not the industrial-strength noise from busy Walnut Street 11 floors below.
 
The wood floor gleams, complementing the ceiling’s white globe lights, the white support columns and the collection of white plaster portrait busts of historical figures that stand on prominent brackets.
 
The institution has been on the top two floors of its current home at 414 Walnut (the Mercantile Library Building) since 1902-1903. A 2010 renovation — at $1.5 million the Library’s largest capital project ever — created a Modernist feel in the reading room’s southern end with new loft-like stacks accessed by a chic metal staircase that looks like the stylized fire escape of a Soho artist’s loft. (During Pyle’s tenure, the Library also reopened its 12th-floor meeting room and remodeled its 11th-floor entrance off the express elevator from the lobby.)
 
While Pyle’s helm era has been marked by growth in operating budget (from $100,000 to $600,000), investment fund (from $1 million to $4.6 million) and membership (from roughly 700 to 1,400), all of that has come amid a slow, ongoing decline in circulation of books.
 
Indeed, the Library still spends about the same amount to acquire books (now including audio books and E-books) as it did in 1993, just $15,000-$20,000 per year. And through constant weeding, it maintains its collection at about 80,000 copies. It does, however, stay abreast of general literary fiction, some genre fiction and popular non-fiction, displaying jackets of recent acquisitions — from Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal to Jules Feiffer’s Kill My Mother — in an area near the staff desks.
 
“In all these years that our membership has gone up and attendance at events has gone up, our circulation has been gradually softening. It is a shadow of its former self,” Pyle explains. “So we have increased the number and size of events we do, and it’s increased our costs and also raised the professional level of our staff.”
 
The Library is hardly alone in this shift. For many years, it served as kind of an unofficial lower Downtown branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati for those on a tight lunch hour or for workers who needed to do research.
 
But the Internet serves that purpose now, and there are also all sorts of electronic means to access books without ever leaving home. It’s also easier than ever to buy books online or to request them be sent to a close-to-home Public Library branch with evening hours. (The Mercantile is open 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays, later for special events.)
 
“Our members are able to order books in the middle of the night in pajamas, and they do,” Pyle says. “The Library attracts people for whom spending on books is worth doing — they are already willing to spend $55 a year (for individuals) to belong despite there being a public library. That’s how much they like reading and book-related activities.
 
“People have never stopped reading. They may read now more than ever. It’s how and when they read that’s changed. We try to adapt to that.”


Balancing tradition and new programs
 
Essentially, the Mercantile Library is embracing reading as a participatory event. And that fact has been the key to its reinvention under Pyle, with his Board of Directors’ strong support.

The members like books and are passionate about them, whether or not they’re using their private library to actually borrow them. And that has opened a lot of possibilities for the Library, especially as more and more people are moving to Downtown and Over-the-Rhine. Those newcomers desire the sense of community missing in suburbia, and many want it to be built around intellect as much as, if not more than, craft beer.
 
“A substantial part of our membership growth has been from people who live in walking distance of library now,” says Pyle, who himself lives in the West End’s City West development. “Our fastest growing zip code is 45202.”
 
To cater to them as well as other members, the Library under Pyle bills itself as “The Literary Center of the Region.” It has always hosted author presentations, but it does more now than ever. Many of its events cost extra for members to attend, and the Library allows non-members to come (at a higher price) in hopes they might someday join. These events usually require advance reservations.

High-profile authors who have come for Library-sponsored events in recent years include Ann Patchett, Colum McCann, Salman Rushdie and Claire Messud. Upcoming on April 20 is Gilbert King, who presents the annual 1835 Lecture — he’s the author of Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of the New America.
 
Under Pyle, the Library has instituted two new annual lectures, the Harriet Beecher Stowe and the 2035 Lecture. At this year’s Stowe Lecture on June 30, author Michelle Alexander will receive a newly initiated award. And the annual Niehoff Lecture, which began in 1986, has outgrown the existing space and is now at the Westin Hotel’s Presidential Ballroom.
 
Some of the many other recent activities include University of Cincinnati Associate Professor Jonathan Kamholtz’s book-discussion series called Hard-Boiled America, featuring noir thrillers; a Literary Journeys: Scandinavia series presided over by attorney Anthony G. Covatta; and By the Book, a noontime series at which civic leaders discuss favorite literature. Then, too, there have been ongoing discussion groups for poetry, Shakespeare and adult-oriented graphic novels. (Go here for a calendar of upcoming events.)
 
“Albert is the main reason the Mercantile Library is viewed as the literary center of Cincinnati — that’s going to be his legacy,” says Paul De Marco, president of Mercantile Library and chairman of its board. “He’s led the way in creation of new signature events and encouraged board members to work with staff to conceive new events and find funds for them.”
 
Tall, lean and balding with a trim beard, Pyle is a welcoming, well-dressed and often-jocular presence at many of these events. And he maintains a similar rapport with his full-time staff of three: Mary Gruber Englert, literary programs manager; Chris Messick, business and marketing manager; and Cedric Rose, collector.
 
“When Albert started at the Library, there were only two other full-time employees,” Gruber recalls via e-mail. “From the beginning he was always quick to pitch in with whatever task needed doing. Members, and the occasional trustee, would be startled to see Albert — impeccably dressed in tailored suit, starched shirt and more often than not his signature bow-tie — moving furniture, stacking chairs and mopping up the occasional wine spill after a particularly rowdy event in the reading room. When questioned as to whether the work fell under his job description, he would always reply yes, under the category ‘Other duties as assigned.’”
 
For all the change during Pyle’s tenure, the place today still has the look — and some of the appropriate accouterments and customs — of a turn-of-the-20th-Century private club that never faded in glory. Members can still bring their lunches to one of the large wooden reading tables. And the Library will still mail physical copies of books — with postage-metered return envelopes to members who request it and pay in advance, a longtime tradition.
 
The old ambiance is still there in the sturdy wooden bookcases with their protective glass doors. And with the books, themselves, like an 1899 copy of Elizabeth H. Denio’s biography of artist Nicolas Poussin. It carries a label from “The Young Men’s Mercantile Library Association” (the original name) with a notice of a 2-cents-per-day fine for “over detention” and a message that “each new member will increase the value of your own membership.”
 
And it’s especially there in the imposing 19th Century newsstands, each of which is a 7-foot slab of mahogany atop cast-iron feet. The Library owns 10, but several are in storage and only two hold traditional daily newspapers — of which there are fewer now than a century ago.
 
As long as the Mercantile Library can keep balancing its urge for relevance with its sense of tradition, it’s probably not going anywhere soon. It has a 10,000-year-lease that dates to 1845 and was given by Cincinnati College, which once was on the current site and housed the Library. The $1-a-year rent was paid in advance for the full lease back in 1845, which gave the college money to rebuild.
 
Did Pyle, during his tenure, ever suggest to his board that maybe it should get a jump-start on lease renewal negotiations, in order to not be caught by surprise by any possible eviction threats in the year 11835?
 
No need, he says. “It’s renewable.”
 

Read more articles by Steve Rosen.

Steve Rosen is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer who serves as CityBeat's Contributing Visual Arts Editor and is a frequent contributor to The Enquirer. His writing also appears in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Dallas Morning News, Boston Globe, Variety, IndieWire.com, Western Art & Architecture, Paste and other publications and websites.
Signup for Email Alerts