Last week, Manhattan’s Mercantile Library emptied the shelves of its shambling, elegant midtown mansion and locked the doors for good. The Merc, one of Old New York’s several private libraries, had occupied its East 47th Street location continuously since 1932, but could no longer outrun the fiscal exigencies of arts funding and NYC real estate. Executive Director Noreen Tomassi did her best to put a positive spin on the Merc’s search for a new home, pointing out in the Times that a downtown relocation could put the 175-year-old institution closer to the center of the current literary scene:
The vibrant centers of the city have changed. The challenge the board faced was trying to run a capital campaign to raise money to refurbish the building in an area which does not have the kind of residential community and vibrant night life that we believe is important to the institution to grow, where young writers are living who we can help.
Nonetheless, count this young writer among the pessimists. The Merc’s move strikes me as both a huge loss for bibliophiles and an indictment of the self-annihilating quality of the current “Warhol economy.”
What kind of loss? It’s hard to describe the charms of The Merc to anyone who’s never visited, but I suspect that denizens of other literary cities can find analogues in beloved (and perhaps shuttered) bookstores, museums, and libraries. Originally a resource for merchants and their clerks – one pictures Melville’s Nipper and Turkey calling up books from the stacks – The Merc became, in its East 47th Street incarnation, nothing less than a temple of the book. As the Times noted, the building provided a “midtown perch” for 75 years’ worth of writers, known and unknown. And the ghost of readers past – in the open shelves and dusty stacks, the sunken armchairs, the uneven stair a Pulitzer winner may once have stumbled over – gave the place an auratic quality that would be difficult for any renovation (and impossible for any relocation) to preserve.
Of course, the American city is defined by change, whether at the hands of developers, of neighborhood associations, or of government. At their best, the three exist in a kind of dynamic tension. (The Merc’s rebranding as a “Center for Fiction,” offering studio space, reading groups, classes, and awards, is an example of what might be called intelligent re-design.) But it seems to me that our increasingly culture-driven economy has a vested interest in sustaining the cultural spaces that sustain it; instead, a kind of remorseless accounting – in which potential funders scrutinize “metrics” – threatens to strip them of their distinctions.
Moreover, in a city where the distance between culture and commodity is increasingly notional, The Merc’s visible continuity with a literary history encompassing Thackeray and Twain offered a welcome corrective. This is not to say that a quantum of glitz doesn’t help the cause of literature, but there’s more than enough of that going around. Young writers need the courage to be marginal, and to write for posterity, just as much as they need pressure to speak to “the vital centers.” When I had the pleasure of giving a reading in the old building this winter, it was precisely its distance from the “vibrant night life” of downtown that made the event meaningful to me. People were there to engage, rather than to be seen.
By nature of its inherent privacy, literacy is one of the cultural practices most insulated from the vagaries of fashion. It takes years to write a book, and sometimes weeks to read one, and this acts as a check on the hype cycle. To put it another way, literature and real estate trade on different notions of “vitality.” Spaces where readers and writers can congregate help bridge the divide between the two, literalizing an otherwise imaginary community; the quality of that community will, perforce, inform the quality of the work written for it. And so literary spaces are worth protecting.
The foregoing is doubtless an oversimplification. The Merc will continue to foster literary vitality once it finds a new home, as the central branch of the New York Public Library (where I’ve been logging many hours of late) will survive its Steven Schwarzman-funded renovation. But the private equity moguls and cultural stewards who have created the conditions for the gut renovation of Gotham would do well to remember Walter Benjamin’s warning: “What is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.” That is, a building like the old Mercantile Library will look great as condos, but, absent neighborhood cultural draws, good luck finding anyone who wants to live there.