Because Downtown’s Mercantile Library has been around since 1835 — it was started by 45 merchants seeking to better themselves through education — some might regard it as a tradition-minded organization slow to change with the centuries. But such people probably aren’t the new members flocking to it — it ended 2017 with its highest membership in 100 years, approximately 3,000 people on 2,205 memberships.
One key reason for the growth is its innovative programming and signature events — including top-name authors and increased literary series. This year, there's even a free-for-members program by Steve Earle, the Grammy-winning, literary-minded Americana singer-songwriter whose most recent album is So You Wannabe an Outlaw.
At its annual meeting this month, the Mercantile announced the guests scheduled so far to appear in 2018. The list is impressive: It has newer writers establishing their reputations, like Brit Bennett, whose debut novel The Mothers has won praise. (She will appear Feb. 6.) It also has the literary lion Margaret Atwood, the Canadian novelist whose 1985 Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian tale of a totalitarian patriarchal society, has taken on renewed relevance since President Trump’s election and has become a television series. She will be in conversation with Curtis Sittenfeld at the Nov. 3 Neihoff Lecture, a black-tie fundraiser at the Hyatt Regency.
Colson Whitehead, whose best-selling 2016 novel The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer Prize, will lecture and receive the Mercantile’s Harriet Beecher Stowe Freedom Writer Award on June 13. (Attendance is free for members; $15 for others.)
Earle, who regularly performs concerts at larger venues, will be at the Mercantile on March 14 as part of the Words and Music program. Last year, its first, Words and Music brought Josh Ritter to the library’s Downtown space. (Non-members can attend Earle's performance for $45.) Earle will be performing songs but he’ll also be discussing his books — he’s written a short-story collection, Doghouse Roses; a novel, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive; and the memoir I Can’t Remember If We Said Goodbye.
“When we first dreamed up the ‘Words and Music’ series, we were hoping to find people working at the intersection of song and writing,” says John Faherty, the Mercantile’s director, via email. “Steve Earle has been working at that crossroads his entire career. Everybody knows he can sing and act. What is more impressive is the fact that he can write songs, plays, essays, poems and novels. The fact that he puts on an absolutely killer show filled with Americana and Outlaw music makes him a perfect fit for the Mercantile Library. We cannot wait.”
Here are the other signature events that the Mercantile has announced:
The 1835 Lecture: A history-focused lecture held on or around the April 18 anniversary date of the Mercantile’s founding, it this year brings in author Susan Orlean on April 19. She wrote the best-selling Orchid Thief.
The Hearth & Home Lecture: Devoted to bestselling authors and personalities who write about the art of living, it brings journalist and food writer Melissa Clark on May 10.
The Science and Technology Lecture: For this, the Mercantile is bringing in journalist and historian Liza Mundy (Code Girls) on July 11.
The 2035 Lecture: A lecture series about new and progressive ideas in business and design, this will have Jerald Cooper, a talent manager and entrepreneur especially interested in how new technology impacts music. He will speak on Aug. 23.
The Pyle Urban Lecture: Created in 2014 to honor former Library Director Albert Pyle, this is bringing in the critic, historian and journalist Luc Sante on Sept. 13. His most recent book, The Other Paris, is an alternative history to the more glamorous portraits written of The City of Lights. He also has written extensively on photography.
The Modern Novel Lecture: The acclaimed contemporary novelist Jennifer Egan, whose A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer Prize and whose latest book, Manhattan Beach, is a best-seller, will speak on Oct. 17.
For more information on specific events and memberships, visit mercantilelibrary.com.