REAL AND UNREAL LANDMARKS OF FICTION: The Mercantile Library in Midtown Manhattan
It is a chilly day in New York, but not actually cold. You walk briskly across 47th street, ignoring the hawkers in diamond alley who want to know if you have gold or jewelry to fence. You do not have any such thing, and so you pull your coat close and shuffle forward.

Between the diamond district and the U.S. Embassy for Ghana lies the Mercantile Library for Fiction.

It is an eight-story building filled with fiction -- just fiction -- all lies, all fancy, nothing else, maybe some writer biographies, just fiction, no poetry.

The fiction section is the delinquent of every library, and this library is one big fiction section. No engineers, no scholars -- just readers, reading the things they read -- porn, prose, Proust, passion-plays, and page-turners.

There are only a few librarians. There are only a few browsers and enthusiasts. But the people inside are dedicated; they are knowledgeable; and they are all the sort of grim hardasses that fiction needs fighting in the trenches. They got heart. They got soul. They got every book you want to read that somebody wrote down in English.

The aims of the Merc are simple and pure:

"The mission of The Mercantile Library Center for Fiction is to promote the reading, writing, and enjoyment of literature. To accomplish this, the Library acquires works of fiction and related non-fiction and circulates these works to its members, provides low-cost work-space to individual writers and non-profit literary organizations, and produces and presents programs of literary interest."

The library was founded in 1820 as a way for members of the non-landed merchant classes to acquire new works of literature and technical works, maintaining amongst themselves a library equivalent to the personal collections of aristocrats.

Originally, the deal with the city was that you could dump your old library books in the mail and they would return to the Merc. It doesn't work that way anymore.

After the invention of the modern library system, the Mercantile library reinvented itself as the premier library for fiction in the English-speaking world: a library solely dedicated to furthering fiction, creating space for writers, and engineering programming and readings to keep conversations about literature fevered and high-spirited.

It's a little bit fucking awesome.

Edgar Allen Poe used to eat lunch at the Mercantile Library. Thackeray, Twain, and Franzen all did time there. In the seventies, the place used to hold wild parties where everyone came as their favorite literary character, and all the eligible singles skinned each other in the book stacks like every vehement literature enthusiast secretly wants to do.

Every now and then you will still find a used condom inside a copy of something by Edward Bulwer Lytton, and you will wonder: could this belong to Tom Wolfe?

Things you will find inside the Mercantile Library:

1). the headquarters for the Proust Society of America
2). the headquarters for the Mystery Writers of America
3). a whole floor filled with desks and electrical outlets so that writers can write and not be asked to leave, buy coffee, or flirt
4). a reading room with all the latest periodicals prized by the leisure classes
5). an elevator from 1937 that may or may not be your death
6). the thousand most important books published every year in hardback editions, kept clean, circulating, and easy to find.
7). the John Sargent, Jr. award for best first novel, which gets you 10 grand, and was started in 2006. Junot Diaz won it this year for "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," the same book that got him the Pulitzer. "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" won in 2006. Some people like that book.
8). old, comfortable chairs for reading in -- the kind other libraries just don't have anymore
9). antique busts
10). books for sale: $2 for paperbacks, $4 for hardbacks

Here is a sad thing about this hidden, magical fiction landmark: the library will be closing its doors on May 15th. The collection will persist, however. The building was bought by some company from Norway, and so the Merc must relocate or it will be forced to ski out to a lonely snowbank and be shot by an expert marksman.

They are game to reopen. They hope to get a new building somewhere in the East Village. This isn't the first time the Mercantile library has had to move. The original was over on Astor Place. It makes sense. Fiction is for travelers; for itinerants; for the kicked, bruised, and abused. But it fights on!

I'm not sure that the world deserves such a grand and empowering establishment as the Mercantile Library for Fiction, but for your sake, I hope they stay in business, the lies keep circulating, and we all have a place to go, sit, and be at home for a little while.


Posted by miracle on Thu, 10 Apr 2008 16:53:19 -0400 -- permanent link

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