Step inside the Mercer Island Library

January 14, 2022 | by Wendy K. Leigh

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All photos by Wendy K. Leigh

With state-of-the-art equipment, a teen lounge, and renowned art and sculptures, the 75-year-old Mercer Island Library buzzes with energy, including in the children’s den, where parents, caregivers, and wide-eyed preschoolers perch on pint-sized tables and stools, conjuring storybook characters. After closing for more than a year from the beginning of the pandemic to July of 2021, the library greeted returning islanders with renewed gusto.

A Short History of the Mercer Island Library

The midsummer reopening marked only the latest renewal of the library’s relationship with the community, which began with a grassroots effort in 1945, when the Emmanuel Episcopal Church on the island’s north end offered free use of a tiny 12-by-12-foot space to establish a dedicated library. The first librarian, Beatrice Lavender, worked tirelessly as a volunteer doling out books supplied by the relatively new King County Library System (KCLS). From the beginning, the Mercer Island Library depended on the community for support, even as it gained more support from KCLS.

Before the floating bridge opened in 1940, connecting the island to Seattle, resident book lovers, scholars, and literati spent hours getting their hands on a single precious book. 

“The trip to borrow books involved a two-mile trek each way on foot, a ferry ride, and cable car once in the city,” according to HistoryLink, which provides this insight in its complete history of the Mercer Island Library.

By 1955, borrowing books got even easier when the island’s first dedicated library facility opened on land donated by an early Mercer Island settler. The brand-new 1200-square-foot space was located at 44th St and 88th Ave SE, where the library would establish its permanent home. Energetic, all-hands-on-deck islanders funded the much-celebrated 10,000-book facility from bake sales and cookouts, and the first structure was built with the volunteer service of architect Jesse Wilkins, who designed the Marion Building in downtown Seattle and the Frank Goodman and Gordon Moss Houses on Mercer Island.  

From there, the library chugged forward with multiple expansions over more than four decades, spurred by the island’s growth and need for modern amenities. In 1989, Mercer Island voters approved a $2.18 million bond measure for constructing a new library, which paved – and paid – the way for the current 14,886-square-foot building. Designed by renowned Louis Nelson Architects, it opened to the admiring public on June 1st, 1991.

Though it had long shared resources with the larger King County Library System, Mercer Island’s library remained fiercely independent until two years later. With strong community support and specific priorities, the community had been hesitant to become a part of KCLS in the past, but a 1993 special election showed the community 78% in support of joining the larger library, an annexation that allowed it to offer more programming, a wider selection of resources, and benefit from the system-wide leadership, while allowing the community funding to go directly to its own library.

The community has had its differences with KCLS over the years, including plans proposed in 2014 for a major renovation of the current library. The eventual compromise, dubbed the “Mercer Island Refresh” by the Friends of the Mercer Island Library group, took place in 2016, opened up the foyer, created more user space, improved acoustics and natural light, and updated existing computer technology. At the same time, it kept the original, community-designed priorities, including the current cozy enclosed children’s area. The result is the current culture- and art-infused library that welcomed patrons to the post-pandemic reopening last summer and continues to welcome patrons five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday.

Today’s Books and Bronze Bunnies

Much as award-winning artist Georgia Gerber’s world-famous “Rachel the Pig” statue welcomes guests at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, her Between Two Worlds greets islanders as they enter the library. The sculpture features a larger-than-life bronze bunny lying on its stomach, supporting a young boy reading a book, while a smaller life-sized bunny stretches lazily near his feet.

Gerber’s iconic bronze animals pepper the island, including “Stan” the dog sitting in the off-leash area at Luther Burbank Park; the “Twin Foxes” at City Hall honoring Mercer Island’s relationship with its French sister-city of Thonon-les-Bains; and her snail and alligator sculptures gracing the grounds of Mercer Island High School and Islander Middle School.

Nearby, the outdoor Early Learning Garden features a StoryWalk path of handmade tiles by children and volunteers displaying letters and corresponding animal and plant illustrations: B for butterfly, O for owl, K for Katydid. Fourteen storyboards reveal nature tips and encourage little learners to interact using songs, writing, climbing, and bug-hunting. Footpaths crunch with Washington hazelnut shells, shaded by northwestern ferns, rhododendrons, and Oregon grape plants. 

The immersive environment continues inside, where additional sculptures and art include six watercolor paintings by Marjette Shille depicting Mercer Island locations, as well as sculptor Tony Angel’s much-loved “Sunning Otter” statue in the cozy children’s nook. Towering over the nonfiction section, artist Maria Frank Abrams energizes the space with six large abstract oil-on-linen creations.

Ebooks, audio tracks, and wi-fi-enabled computer stations complement research sections for all ages. A dedicated teen lounge, complete with an enormous hanging skateboard, features trendy bistro sets, chessboard tabletops, and vending machines. Dotted throughout the library, colorful crushed-velvet chairs, Papasan-style perches, and sleek mid-century leatherette armchairs redefine the library experience, inviting visitors to relax, browse through magazines, get lost in their favorite reads, or do their studying.

Along with free books to borrow from the King County Library system, a set of shelves tucked behind the bronze “Introspection” sculpture by Gizel Berman bulge with “gently used” offerings from the Friends of the Mercer Island Library book sale – the same group that has put in countless hours and thoughtful, organized effort to building and customizing the library for the community. Pop-up and special-occasion book sales occur periodically (even during the pandemic), but a permanent section of for-sale books, puzzles, DVDs, audiobooks, and video games is refreshed every Saturday throughout the year.  Recent treasures buried in the collection included a $2 hardback copy of a children’s poetry by Shel Silverstein, $1 and $2 paperbacks by humorists Dave Barry and Erma Bombeck, nostalgic oversized art books, and encyclopedias with delightful black-and-white sketches. 

Though the library evolved over the years from a single room into a generous building as part of a much larger system, the priorities and mission of the library remain the same, thanks in large part to the continuing community support. Meanwhile, even when in-person events can’t be held safely, the partnership with KCLS gives islanders access to online events like storytimes for children, study help for teenagers, and genealogy research lessons.

The library is currently open Tuesday through Saturday at 4400 88th Ave SE. Check the Mercer Island Library KCLS page for updated information, and find news about poetry readings, book clubs, online chess tournaments, and more on the Friends of Mercer Island Library Facebook page.

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