The Smell of Books

In a world made of tweets, texts and wall posts, and of disappearing bookstores, it is a rare experience to enter a shop where used and rare books line endless walls.
I borrowed my first library books in an old castle transformed in a public library. I don’t need to close my eyes to visualize the shelves crowded with them.
Merrill’s bookshop in Hallowell, Maine holds more than 100 000 books, according to the proprietor John Merrill. A cavern to get lost, surrounded by books and stories from the imagination of writers from all over the world. A dream and also a nightmare for a book lover.
In the library/castle of my childhood, I often wished to remain after-hours and to be locked, so I could read all night long. At the same time, I also realized with panic that I would never be able to read each and every book published. Even though I read as much as I could, books caught up with me.
The same overwhelming feeling made me dizzy this morning when I took in the rooms packed with books from floor to ceiling.
No Kindle, iPad or Nook has ever spun my head.
And the smell…
I don’t need to inhale to remember the smell of the books housed in the library of my childhood. My young mind imagined that this smell held the world’s most important secrets.
The smell of books is still as mesmerizing. On a rainy Maine day where humidity saturates the air, it is even more tantalizing.


Kindles, iPads, Nooks, and future reading tablets, you are wonderful airplane companions. Your sleek appearance attracts the modern eye. You take little space compared to books and bookshelves. You are tight, light, and practical.
But come on, who are you compared to towering shelves topped with books and books? And to the smell of paper, ink, and leather?
Mr. Merrill doesn’t have a website for his bookshop. He is not on AbeBooks. He offers you a classic business card when you leave. I’m not even sure he has a computer. He wrote down the titles of the books my family purchased on a piece of paper. “For my inventory,” he said. But he knew every book he owned.
I climbed down the narrow stairs, my teenage kids tagging along, hoping that Mr. Merrill would never get old so their own kids would someday see such a magical place.
Back home, I added my new acquisition – an old John Irving – to the pile of books my husband and I have bought this summer, either in France or in the US.
His iPad and my Kindle looked as sleek and cool, light and practical on the table.
But they didn’t smell anything.

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