Why Does the Smell of Books Make Readers Swoon?

Author
Share
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit
The Latest
Tonic Topics

One of the criticisms levied against eBooks is that they lack the sensory pleasure of reading a printed book. To quote Rupert Giles from season one of Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower or a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is…it has no texture, no context. It’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible. It should be, um, smelly.

That episode aired in 1997, but the argument hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. There’s something deeply nostalgic about the smell of a secondhand bookstore or library. Even if you can’t quite put your finger on why that smell is so appealing, book lovers know it when they smell it.

Powell’s Books Releases Bookstore Fragrance

Powell’s Books, the legendary Portland, OR, bookstore that sprawls across more than a city block, just announced that they will begin selling a book-scented fragrance. The unisex blend is called “Powell’s by Powell’s” and tries to capture a bookstore in a bottle.

According to the product description, the fragrance “creates an atmosphere ripe with mood and possibility, invoking a labyrinth of books; secret libraries; ancient scrolls; and cognac swilled by philosopher-kings.”

That’s a lot of words to describe a feeling, but not much detail on the actual notes of the fragrance. Those are listed briefly as “wood, violet, bibliochor.” What’s that actually smell like? Luckily for you, dear reader, I happen to dabble in perfumery.

A simple fragrance contains three notes: a base note, a heart note, and a top note. The top note hits your nose first but also evaporates first–think light, bright smells like citrus or roses. The heart notes linger after that, typically combining heavier florals, spices, and herbal scents. The base note, as you can guess, is the final note that lingers on your skin and rounds out the blend of smells. Vanilla, amber, musk, and sandalwood are all very common base notes.

The notes listed for Powell’s fragrance don’t quite add up from a perfumery point of view. “Wood” is a bit vague, but many perfumes use a base note of some type of woody scent as a base note. “Violet” is another very common perfume note, a sweet and powdery scent that is typically a top note. “Biblichor” is a made-up word to describe the scent of books, riffing on “petrichor,” or the smell of the earth after rain.

I’ve blended my own take on a bookstore scent in the past, and the notes I chose emphasized oakmoss, musk, and vanilla as the base. Why vanilla? Because as paper made from wood pulp breaks down, it releases a compound called lignin. This smells similar to vanilla, and I wouldn’t be surprised if “bibliochor” secretly just a vanilla/musk note.

Keeping Bookstores Open Is a Labor of Love

Although Powell’s does a thriving trade online, like almost every other retailer they have experienced a slow-down during the pandemic. Late last month, New York’s landmark The Strand had to place an emergency call on social media for fans to help keep the store’s door open. The bookstore usually gets about 300 orders online each day; after asking for help, they received 25,000 orders over the weekend.

Unfortunately, one really good weekend may not be enough to save The Strand. And although the $24.99 novelty book fragrance from Powell’s has gotten an “overwhelmingly positive” response from shoppers, with well over 1200 pre-orders placed already, the independent bookstore is still struggling to compete with Amazon.

“Powell’s by Powell’s is a wonderful reminder of one of the many things bibliophiles love about independent bookstores like Powell’s, especially at a time when local and independent retailers are taking a sustained hit from Amazon and other giant online retailers,” store owner Emily Powell said in a statement.

If you’d like to support your local independent bookstore while still enjoying the convenience of online shopping, check out indiebound.org. You can find your local stores, order curbside pickup, and even buy eBooks through a platform that directly supports authors and bookstores instead of big corporations.

Author
Share
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit