Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The St. Louis Mercantile Library, which tourists should visit

The problem with praising a library is that there is little point for anyone not able to actually check out a book.  If I induced a single St. Louis resident to visit the library, I’m happy.  But for anyone else, even someone visiting St. Louis – so what?  The Boston Public Library has the Sargent murals.  What does the St. Louis Public Library have to attract the peripatetic Cardinals fan, in town for a game?  Not much, plus the main building is now closed for two years while they polish it and clean out the giant coal bin.*

So visit the Arch and the Anheuser-Busch brewery and the amusing and original Citygarden sculpture park. And the misnamed City Museum, which has to be seen to be believed.  And, if it’s not too far out of your way, one library, a different one.

The St. Louis Mercantile Library, founded in 1846, is, I am told, the oldest library west of the Mississippi.  It was founded by merchants, not for them, as a cultural space for working men.  Over time, it accumulated a collection of stuff, odd stuff, as well as books.  A sign for the Mercantile Library can still be seen downtown, the original building victim of an abandoned renovation.  The library itself and every object in it has moved to the edge of the city, to the campus of the University of Missouri – St. Louis, where it now has a space within the university library.

The website for the Mercantile Library emphasizes its importance as an archive, which is true, but no reason for most of us to visit.  I can find no mention of the peculiar old artifacts.  Napoleon’s death mask, for example.  Or the marble statue of Beatrice Cenci.  Or the bust of Robert Burns, perched atop a custom-made wooden pillar carved with scenes from Burns’ life and poems.  Over here is a giant steamship wheel, over there is an original Audubon Birds of America, and farther on is someone’s model train collection, filling eight cases.  A chest full of movable type, the Library’s original doors and chairs, a cabinet full of editions of Tom Sawyer.  About the only thing you won’t find is a college student!  Ha ha ha!

The art collection is significant and attractive as well.  I borrowed a favorite of mine, a Joseph Vorst, and put it off to the side.  Missouri scenes, city scenes, labor scenes, railroad scenes. Maps, too, heaps of maps.  I now wish I had taken some photos.

The Mercantile Library is worth visiting.  The traveler crossing St. Louis on I-44 or I-270 will have to go out of her way by twenty minutes or so.  The driver on I-70 goes right by it.  Why doesn’t he stop?  What’s his hurry?

* The coal bin is so large that it is being converted into a theater.


  1. I have been in and out of St. Louis most of my life (grew up in Cape Girardeau) and never knew about this library.

  2. If you're out by the airport, take a look.

    St. Louis has some of the oddest things.