May 20, 2014

How should book perfumes really smell?



(photo via shuterstock) Just a spritz of sadness and socks right here oughta do it…

It’s among the most fetishized of scents, (or at least the most socially acceptable to fetishize). That smell of dust and lignin and aging glue: sometimes it seems almost as cherished as texts themselves.

Or, as our friend Emily Gould writes,

“I don’t like reading ebooks because I just love the way old books smell.” If I had a nickel for every time I heard this one, Emily Books would be a lot closer to its goal of eventually publishing all our editions in physical as well as ebook format!

Gould goes on to list three perfumes meant to replicate the signal odor of aging books, with or without the hints of cigar and cat depending on how much you’re willing to pay. We’ve written about book perfumes before here on MobyLives, and each time I think “that cannot be accurate.” Sure, perfumes are doing a good job of replicating the smell of used bookstores or endless library stacks. But what if you could bottle the scents that went into making the books? What would Indie Publishing perfume smell like?

1. Coffee. Coffee should be the dominant scent of any truly accurate book perfume. In fact, for real accuracy book perfume should just be a bottle of room temperature coffee, poured sometime this week you’re pretty sure, faintly gelatinous with milk, and tasting, should you be foolish enough to get any near your mouth, like a delicate mixture of adrenaline and sock. Books smell like the kind of coffee Cormac McCarthy characters drink.

2. Cava and/or Prosecco. Indie publishing is full of reasons to celebrate and no funds with which to do so. None of the authentic terroir for your book perfume, no. And not the smell of fresh Prosecco either. No, authentic book perfume smells like a Prosecco hangover. It smells like accomplishment and joy mixed with a sharp, gaseous grape regret. It doesn’t smell like the Prosecco that was in your glass, it smells like the Prosecco on your pants that you wore the next day anyhow because screw it.

3. Cardboard. Indie publishing smells like corrugated cardboard. It’s just like book lignin, but less sexy, hooray! A surprising fact of indie publishing—at least our version of it—is that a lot of boxes roll in and out of our offices. The air is thick with cardboard dust some days. So yeah, add some cardboard into the mix. And maybe some diesel exhaust. You like the smell of old books? Surprise, you also like the smell of the way we transport our books.

4. Sweat. Indie publishing smells like the sweat of frail booklovers trying to heave around boxes full of bricks made of compressed tree. You know how sweat is sexy sometimes? Musky? This isn’t that sweat. This smells like somebody learning what triceps are thirty years too late in life. And then not washing those clothes. Because oh yes, did I mention that indie publishing happens in cramped rental apartments with no laundry machines? That kind of sweat. Not a lot of it. Not enough to prove anything. Not enough to overpower the stale coffee and diesel exhaust. But it’s in there.

5. Hotel conference rooms AKA a fluorescent waking nightmare full of lovely strangers and industrial carpeting. Maybe we could take our diesel boozy coffee concoction and pour it onto some carpeting in a Marriott somewhere and then wring it out into our spritz bottle. That might really give it that Eau de Why Did We Pay for This Booth?

5. Indie publishing smells like afternoon sun. Aw, see, you thought all of these were going to be terrible. Not at all. Indie publishing smells like sun streaming through windows on a summer afternoon and into a room full of brilliant, dedicated (but yes still hungover and sweaty) fellow readers, working to put good things out into the world. I don’t know how to capture that scent, though, so maybe add some red pencil shavings or whatever, just to be cute about it. Or, maybe more coffee. Never enough coffee.

Take all of those ingredients. Stir them up in an (unwashed) mug with an indie bookstore logo on it. Then, clumsily knock that mug over onto your desk so that it soaks a galley or two and pours onto your lap. Now blot it up as best you can with one of those thousands of tote bags you have lying around. Send out those galleys. Good, now, weeks later, still in those pants, unwashed as I’ve explained, carrying that tote full of brilliant and unpublishable manuscripts, learn that one of  those galleys got you a review in a national paper. Head to a different indie bookseller. The other galley got you a staff pick there. You stink. You’re happy. You did good work. Take a deep breath. Smell that? No, not the books; you, you filthy bastard. That’s what indie bookselling smells like. Welcome to it. Now please don’t stand so close, thanks.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.