Saturday, January 9, 2010

Farewell to the Mercury Cafe and Lending Library

A Caffeinated Biblio-Relic

With sadness I write this obituary. Purposely, I call it such, because the most glorious of Chicago shabby chic cafes has gone the way of the stage coach, daugerreotypes, and BETA track recording. The Mercury Cafe, located at 1505 W. Chicago Avenue in the Noble Square neighborhood of Chicago closed this past fall. I had gone there last summer, and discovered that this fine cafe was in fact more than just a "fine cafe," but a marvelous location for community activity and engagement, which had great lattes and espressos, but also a magnificent collection of books, which it both sold and lent out to patrons of the establishment. I must say, this was one of the first times I'd encountered such a place, and it was wonderful. When I went the first, and only time, while it was still functioning, I think I bought a dozen books--from environmental feminist novels published in the mid-1970s to a book on the history of the Shakespearean sonnets.

Yet, when I went back, the second time, I was devastated to discover that not only was the Mercury Cafe "not open," it was permanently "CLOSED!" This was a shock. Later, I went online and discovered a threaded discussion on the community forum "Yelp!"... see the following:

In this link, there was discussion of the closing of the Mercury Cafe, including a note by one of the previous owners. This person made clear that the main reason for closing was that there were still large numbers of patrons coming to the cafe, but that half of the revenues were coming in. Now to understand what this person meant, you really had to see the inside of this formidable coffee shop. I say "formidable," because I can honestly say that the Mercury Cafe was probably "the" largest coffee shop I'd ever been in. Not only was it large, it was--to use a popular neologism--"ginormous." Seriously, it was more like a church banquet hall or a Knights of Columbus conference center than a coffee shop; to call it a "cafe," which seems to give off a spatial sense of "coziness" or "comfortable charm" seemed a misnomer. Though, it was a comfortable and charming place, despite its enormity.

I can't say for sure how large it actually was, but to give you an idea, it could probably fit 300 people comfortably; and you could have likely squeezed in a thousand. It took about 25 seconds to walk to the counter from the front door, partly because you were stunned to see such a vacuous space with so many places to sit, and then you had to walk the 100+ feet to the glass case with croissants or to look at the caffeinated choices scrawled out in blue-chalk collegiate penmanship! I bought my drink and sweet foodie treat, and wandered around the place in awe. It had no less than a dozen couches, if my faulty memory is moderately correct. There were soft, comfy chairs scattered all about. And there were tables everywhere: big tables, small tables, medium tables, tables that wobbled, tables that were flat, tables that lilted, and, heck, tables that spoke Dutch! I mean, I think there were tables for everything.

And then I discovered the "library" and sale books shelves. In the image of books above, one can see the "books for borrowing" in the lending library. They were marked in their own cataloging classification system, with stars and dots of red, blue, and so forth. I never documented the variety of classification notations, because it never entered my mind that the place was going to close! Looking to the image at left here, it read "Come visit our eclectic mini-LIBRARY." I was so impressed by the whole set-up. They must have had well over a thousand books for borrowing. I perused them and discovered books of all categories: politics, sociology, literature, gender studies, history, and more. People were sitting around the mini-library shelves, chatting, discussing, sipping coffee, reading. It was a wonderful atmosphere, enhanced by this magnificent pearl of a micro-lending-library.

On the opposite side of the giant room, there was a space with several more book shelves, dedicated to "sale books," as you can see in the image below.

I spent a good portion of the rainy afternoon in the Mercury cafe looking at books, selecting books, putting some back, re-selecting, and finally buying some. I purchased my hot drink, which steamed itself into the space above my table, where I'd gathered my dozen newly acquired volumes. And I sat there, looking through each with that wonder, which a new book brings to its owner (or, is it partner?); and I looked out onto the street, which was drenched in sheets of rain. What a fine afternoon.

The role of this blog has shifted and adapted in many ways since I began in back in May 2009. With the passing of the Mercury Cafe and Micro-Lending-Library, writing these entries, and accounting for these relics of the biblio-past, "On Books and Biblios" has become an historian of sorts; a preservationist of Chicago flaneury, cafe-culture a la Karl Kraus, and bibliotourism. In some ways, the role of this blog and my work as biblio-journalist is to show examples of books in their multivalent spaces, and how ever-present and ever-involved in our society and lives they continue to be. And yet, when we find the gradual decline of these spaces, such as we have today, perhaps an accounting of this fleeting memory is suitable...whether for those who once frequented the Mercury Cafe and Mini-Lending Library, or for those curious of the culture that once was. And I suppose that's not such a bad task to perform.

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