The Mechanics' Institute Library & Chess Club sounds like an organization from a bygone era. And truthfully, it is. Founded in 1854 to serve the needs of San Francisco's failed gold miners, the Institute grew steadily through the end of the 19th century, accumulating members and adding pertinent volumes to its collection. Hosting lectures, industrial fairs, and chess tournaments, the Institute was both a social and cultural fixture in the lives of its members. Today it functions in nearly exactly the same way, continuing a tradition of earnest self-education that sparked its original inception.
The history of the Mechanics' Institute parallels the history of San Francisco itself. Benefiting from a rising tide of trade and prosperity in the city, the Mechanics' Institute built a permanent home on Post Street in 1866, garnered support from the University of California, and a bequest from James Lick (the wealthiest man in the state at the time of his death). In January 1906, the library absorbed a vast humanities-based collection held by the local Mercantile Library, bringing the library holdings to 200,000 books, give or take a few.
Four months later, the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed everything. That is, everything except the contents of two safes and a bronze cast of Lick. A new building, a new collection, and 157 years later, the Mechanics' Institute Library now boasts approximately 5,000 members and 165,000 volumes, but its original purpose -- acting as a hub for the exchange of ideas and skills -- is its most unique asset.
Since its founding, members could select from a spate of what we today consider "continuing education" classes: geometric drawing, wood carving, applied mathematics. Now the offerings read something like this: Facebook, Twitter, Google+. If this list seems to fit a certain demographic, it might not deceive. Luddites will find themselves catered to, but the Institute's busy schedule of author appearances, CinemaLit screenings, chess classes, and book clubs proves its vitality and contemporary relevance.
The building itself (San Francisco Historic Landmark #124) is refreshingly out of step with time. The library occupies just the lower floors, while an eclectic group of rent-paying small businesses are housed above. Entering the building from the bustle of the Financial District, marble floors lead to a majestic spiral staircase and the main floors of the library. With the swipe of a member's card, glass doors open onto spacious reading areas filled with deep leather armchairs. Flanking this central atrium, three levels of stacks are supported by substantial Corinthian columns. In the narrow passageways between shelves of books, the floor alternates between metal plates and thick frosted glass. And the ceilings are frequently low enough to convey the distinct impression that people were -- as a general rule -- shorter when this building was erected.
Smaller rooms lined with locked glass cases exhibit some of the library's rarer holdings, surrounding expansive wood tables, perfect for spreading out for a good day of reading or writing. Overall, the Mechanics' Institute is a weird and wonderful refuge for book-lovers, a library the likes of which you won't find in any of San Francisco's neighborhood branches. The general ambiance is one of quiet studiousness -- except, perhaps, in the chess room, where I was greeted with a territorial glare and, "Yes, this is the chess club."
In 1927, the Institute's president noted, "The cost of membership is so low that no one need be without it." In 2011, an individual can enjoy a year's membership for $95. If this seems steep, try a free guided tour any Wednesday at noon. If you're still in doubt, I'll supply one additional reason to investigate further: where else can you find the oldest library on the West Coast, the oldest continuously operating chess club in the United States, and tenant of room 808, the International Wizard of Oz Club, all under the same roof?
The Mechanics' Institute Library & Chess Room is located at 57 Post Street in San Francisco. For more information visit milibrary.org.