Historical Treasure: St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL

The leather binding, the texture of the pages, even the scent—there is something powerful about the printed word, but in our digital age, it can be easy to forget the tactile experience of holding a book. Thankfully, the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL is here to remind us. As the oldest general library in continuous existence west of the Mississippi River (founded in 1846), it has remained a vibrant cultural asset. The library provides members with access to several collections of books, art and archival materials, including historic newspapers and presidential and Civil War-era letters. It also hosts the annual St. Louis Fine Print, Rare Book & Paper Arts Fair, which links local collectors with dealers from across the country.

“The St. Louis Mercantile Library is more than a library,” says art curator Julie Dunn-Morton. “We were the first art gallery in St. Louis and have remained a center for education and culture. Our collections preserve St. Louis’ history and are known nationally and internationally for their depth and breadth.” The fair began 13 years ago as a way to revitalize the St. Louis print market, and Dunn-Morton notes the library’s resources have allowed the event to expand and be a unique reflection of the institution. “There are many wonderful art fairs, but we have a standout combination of rare materials, including original artwork, fine prints and rare, collectible books,” she says. “The wide variety offered by our dealers and artists is stellar.”

This year, the fair will be held May 4 and 5 at the J.C. Penney Conference Center on UMSL’s North Campus, and 20 dealers are participating. The event offers practically every type of paper collectible. Items range from rare first edition books, prints by artists from America and Europe, original watercolors, and historic photographs. Dunn-Morton says the line-up includes well-known local dealers like Kodner Gallery, which focuses on American and European art from the 19th and 20th centuries; Tomsich Fine Arts, which specializes in regional and Missouri art; and McCaughen & Burr Fine Arts, which deals in American paintings and prints.

Guests watch an art demonstration at the fair.

The event also includes many one-of-a-kind opportunities. On both Saturday and Sunday, visitors can watch artists at work during drop-in demonstrations, including Juliette Travous, who works with pastels, and Erin Blumer, whose medium is watercolor. “We’ve also invited local artists who may not be selling at the fair to share their art,” Dunn-Morton says. To give guests a firsthand look at the printing process, Central Print will hold demonstrations of hand and letter presses.

History of Saint Louis City and County by J. Thomas Scharf, 1883, Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL

Dunn-Morton says visitors who want to make the most of the fair should head across the quad to the library itself. There, they can take a 45-minute, docent-led tour and get an introduction to its major collections, including those on westward expansion, river and rail transportation, and regional fine art, which are especially notable. Even if you’ve already toured the library, Dunn-Morton recommends a return visit. “The docents put their own spin on the tour based on their interests,” she says. “Each time, it’s very different and new.”

The library also offers special exhibits. Headlines of History focuses on newspapers, one of its most important research collections. The exhibit includes newspapers covering landmark events and even features a copy of the Philadelphia paper that first published the Declaration of Independence. Also currently on display, St. Louis Before, After and Beyond: New Acquisitions for the Map Collection showcases 17th- and 18th-century maps of the United States. “It’s a wonderful exhibition and a big highlight for visitors,” Dunn-Morton says. A third exhibit called Inspired By Love features paintings and prints done by local artists who are married to other artists.

The St. Louis Fine Print, Rare Book & Paper Arts Fair kicks off with a preview party May 3. It’s the library’s primary fundraiser of the year, supporting both the preservation and acquisition funds. “It helps us to expand and properly care for our collections,” Dunn-Morton explains. “Plus, the party always is a lot of fun.” The event includes a silent auction that offers some unique items that reflect the library’s collections. As well as having a chance to win fine art prints and rare books, guests can bid on tugboat trips, tours of artists’ studios and private collections, and items curated to reflect the best of Missouri. “We keep the evening centered on the Mercantile,” Dunn-Morton says. “Our goal is to help people get to know the library.”

The St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL is the oldest general library in continuous existence west of the Mississippi River. The annual St. Louis Fine Print, Rare Book & Paper Arts Fair is May 3 through 5. Pictured on the cover: Frederick Oakes Sylvester (1869-1915), Study of Grapes, watercolor, n.d. Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL. For more information, call 314.516.7240 or visit
Cover design by Julie Streiler | Cover photo courtesy of St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL

Pictured at top: Werner Drewes (1899 – 1985), St. Louis, Gateway to the West, color woodblock print, 1961, Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL
Photos courtesy of St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL


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