After more than two decades at the helm of the 180-year-old Mercantile Library, Albert Pyle is retiring. The institution he leaves is the self-proclaimed “literary center of Cincinnati,” with a history of bringing to town cultural luminaries that stretches back to the days of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Funny thing: In the 1980s and ’90s, before he got the Mercantile gig, Pyle was a writer of detective fiction and a contributor to this magazine, where he frequently turned his wit on the city’s foibles—a tradition he continued more recently as the originator of our curmudgeonly columnist, Dr. Know. In that capacity he answered readers’ questions about our city’s quirks, and during his tenure, coined the phrase “Boehnerbelt.” It seems we’re always looking to him for answers of some sort. Before he hops on his bike and heads home to catch up on his reading, we thought we’d ask him a few more.
You’re a Chicago guy. How did you end up in Cincinnati?
I married into the family. I met [my wife] Deborah at the University of Kentucky and in the process saw Cincinnati, which she wanted desperately to leave. And I thought it was a great place to stay. I’ve spent 48 years convincing her that it was a good idea.
I like to think that Cincinnati Magazine played a small but important role in your coming here, to the Mercantile Library.
Deborah had been a member for years. My familiarity was as a judge in a fiction competition, but she was the one who used the library. [The magazine’s then-editor/publisher] Laura Pulfer was a ridiculous fan. She was on the search committee and suggested me for the job.
Give me the CliffsNotes of the past 21 years—the narrative arc of the changes the library has been through.
Well, I hope it hasn’t changed too much. The mission as stated by [board members] Dale Brown and Buck Niehoff and written on the back of a barf bag on Delta Airlines—as I recall, they were returning from an outing of the Commercial Club in Florida or some such place—is to be the literary center of our region. I think that was where it was headed before I got here, and my job was to keep it pointed in the right direction. I hope I’ve done it.
You’ve put together a great staff.
Best staff in the city, in my opinion. Mary Gruber Englert was here a good 10 years before I got here. She’s about as senior as you can get. She has done a wonderful job keeping me from going adrift. She knows almost everybody by sight and that’s part of the great charm of the place: I have copied her as closely as I can. She has gone from being the junior librarian to being the manager of literary programs, and has done it skillfully and with great charm. Cedric Rose has just become the first professional librarian in the 180-year history of the library. He completed a master’s degree in library and information science with Kent State University and is shaping us for the future. It was Cedric who recommended Chris Messick as the business and marketing manager. And we’ve got a very good halftime membership clerk, Jennifer Ridenour. They’re all smart as whips, they’re all funny, and they’re all very good with the membership. I’m happy to say I’m leaving it in good hands.
A number of years ago you wrote an essay for Cincinnati Magazine about hosting authors. What has it been like to bring some fairly huge literary names to town?
It’s been surprisingly pleasant. We’ve had a pretty good stream of people with egos in check, which I think is always desirable. They have been cooperative. I can’t think of anybody who has been hard to deal with. Probably the biggest pleasure was Julia Child—who was even more like Julia Child in person than on television. Just fantastic; bigger than life and tremendously fun. The other one—the best guest we ever had—was Pat Conroy, who was charm itself, genuinely charming. There was a dinner and he went to every single table and thanked people for coming. And then gave a wonderful talk.
Any bad experience that you can relate . . .
. . . without attaching names?
Shortly before Taste of Cincinnati, the Mercantile Library newsletter—and I know it’s not necessarily written by you, but whoever pens it—referred to the city’s “spectacularly clueless Chamber of Commerce.” What prompted that remark?
Apparently they are part of blocking the relocation of the street festivals [to the Banks], which is totally boneheaded. We are their ancestral organization. Our members went on to found what became the Chamber of Commerce. And they have to be reminded of it every time I pick up the phone.
Is that something the library would have written in a newsletter 21 years ago?
Probably not. I was probably more careful when I came in. But now I’m old. What are they going to do?
You’re such a supporter of the city. Yet you realize that part of being a supporter is to point out when stuff needs fixing.
Stuff always needs fixing. One of my longest frustrations had been that the [city leadership] seem to have no ambition for the city, and that just drove me crazy. I think the city is the best unit of government. And to be mayor of the city is to have the best job in the country. I think this present mayor—I don’t agree with his ambitions, but I’m happy to see that he has some ambitions for the city, and that’s good.
“I had no concept of public generosity or public obligation, and the people I’ve seen come through here and write big checks to the library and other institutions has been a lesson for me. This city is very fortunate to have some of the families that it does.”
Obviously a library is supposed to be a place of big ideas. And the speakers you’ve scheduled have presented some pretty challenging ones, such as Michelle Alexander, who wrote The New Jim Crow. Has your board always been comfortable with that?
Yes. They are smart people. They have a wide range of opinions and they understand the idea of having an exchange of opinions. This is not a church. In the past couple of years there was [a member] who was incensed over somebody we had as a speaker, and it was such a rare incident. In all the years I’ve been here, that’s the only call like that I’ve had. As I get older I’m more like my mother, who only counted the sunny hours. So I don’t remember who it was or what the member was incensed at. The members of the library, not just the board, understand the concept of a free exchange of ideas. That’s why, I think, this library has turned out to be a refuge for those people. And I’m glad that it is.
An institution like this could very easily attract people whose ideas are calcified—about the institution itself and what it’s supposed to do and how it’s supposed to do it.
But it hasn’t. There’s been a steady stream of people who come in and are swept away because it’s such a good-looking place. Then they come back and settle in and it’s just lovely to see. Beyond being a pleasure, this has been a real education. I had no concept of public generosity or public obligation, and the people I’ve seen come through here and write big checks to the library and other institutions has been a lesson for me. This city is very fortunate to have some of the families that it does.
How do most of your members use the library these days? I assume it doesn’t circulate as many books as it used to.
Circulation has been on the decline for years, same with all libraries. And we don’t have DVDs to hype the totals. But we have even more people coming in and working here, using the wireless [connection]. And it is, for a lot of people, the “third place” of myth. We are very fortunate to be a membership library. The public library, which is one of the city’s richest assets and greatest institutions, has to do the heavy lifting [of serving a wide range of needs]. We are like a Catholic school.
You—and the library—have also been supportive of efforts to revitalize the urban core.
We are in the heart of the city and we can’t move. So our concern is that this always be a functional, attractive, and accessible place. I would say the ’90s were the iffiest moments for the library; you couldn’t tell which way the city was going to go—or even the building. We are very happy to have our current [landlords], who see the value of the library as an asset! And I want to see the city do well. I do. Still working to justify it to the missus.
You’ve said you plan to retire and read. What’s on your reading list?
I’m working my way through Trollope again. I think I’m going to have a go at the Russians. And I will always read crime novels. I would like to see crime novels about Cincinnati that are written with the skill of crime novels that are written about Los Angeles.
What do you see as the future of this place?
The library? More of the same. It’s got a clear and simple goal. It’s one that is not dependent on technology. I have been asked over the years if I don’t prefer [printed] books. But I’m a content person. I’m interested in what is said. It doesn’t make any difference to me if it’s on an electronic screen or a printed page. And that’s speaking as the son of a printer.