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.
Subject: Enjoying that distinct “Old Book” smell
Rating: 5+ stars
Best Paired with: Any of the awesome beers found at the Alien Brew Pub in Albuquerque, NM, particularly the Crop Circle Wheat
Libraries have always been my favorite places. They’re always cozy, warm, welcoming, and quiet. You can’t help but feel smarter when you walk into a library. There’s just something inspiring about those huge wooden book cases packed neatly with rows and rows of books and the quiet calm voices people only use at the library, the smell of old musty paper and the sun shining into the room in big strips. Entering a library is like coming home after a long walk in the snow.
One of my first vivid childhood memories is a trip to the library. I was about five years old and excited beyond words by all of the books. I wanted them all. After stacking a precarious pile on the counter, the librarian gently explained the ten book limit on children’s checkouts and helped me narrow down my selection. It was so disappointing, but she did give me my own library card and let me sign the back by myself while explaining I could come back to the library anytime. That library card became my ticket to freedom and I spent my entire childhood trying to read through the entire library. In high school, the library become a den of calm and quiet in my overactive adolescence. I remember seeking out the farthest corner on the top floor, laying on the floor between two giant book cases, positioned like sentinels, as I fell into a world of mystery, romance, religion, and intrigue. At 17, I designed my first tattoo while seated Indian style on the floor in my favorite row, merging a compilation of designs found in a book on ancient written languages. In college, the library became a quiet witness to my struggles with certain courses, the late night study sessions and the occasional naps and breakdowns between the pages of textbooks. The library was the first to know I was in love, the first to know I’d failed an exam, the first time I’d experienced a poetry reading or stopped to really look at a painting as something more than just a pretty picture.
After moving 1200 miles away from home, the library became the first destination I could drive to without referencing handwritten directions. With my first baby, when I knew nothing and felt deeply terrifyingly alone, the library was there like an old mother hen, welcoming us with the silly songs and stories every week at story hour. The library, and its endless supply of books, is an old friend in an apron and floured hands, pulling cookies from the oven.
This then, is my love letter to the library and all of the wonderful books within.