There was a bookstore in Denver, The Black & Read, that smelled absolutely uh-mazing. As soon as you’d open the door, you’d be hit with a wave of that musty sweet clean bitter slightly pungent odor that only old books exude. They sold records and sci-fi memorabilia too, so the smell there seemed to be overly potent. On rainy days, I liked to pop in there and get lost in the shelves, the book smell lingering in my hair and clothes. As a kid, I only read books that “smelled good”, re-shelving the antiseptic smelling new books in favor of those with a “good smell”. This method led to some seriously fantastic reads. My logic at 8 was that a book with a strong bookish aroma is usually well read, meaning it’s a book worth reading.
Houston has Half Price Books, which occasionally catches the old book scent, but it’s more like catching a hint of a favorite perfume on the wind but not knowing where it came from. The scent there just can’t match any of those old teeny tiny tucked into a corner bookstores that used to be everywhere. I love my Kindle, but it was a sad day when bookstores started closing and that smell started disappearing.
Turns out I’m not the only person with an affection for that musty old book smell. Researchers at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage believe “old book” is a smell that is part of our cultural heritage. As part of their research experiment, they asked people to describe the smell of the St Paul’s Cathedral Dean and Chapter library. 100% of the folks surveyed described the library smell as woody. Another 86% described it as smoky. 71% described it as earthy and amazingly 41% of people described that old book library smell as vanilla!
So now that they know what it smells like, can we get someone to work on making old book scented candles? I’m serious.
Candle wish lists aside, what causes that old book smell? Research points to the paper, ink and binding adhesives, which give off an odor during the chemical breakdown of those components. I prefer my 2nd grade analysis that a particularly aromatic book has a collected a lot of history in its pages and is a worthy good read.