Booksellers and booksmellers

Booksellers and booksmellers
by David Benjamin

“I know every book of mine by its scent, and I have but to put my nose between its pages to be reminded of all sorts of things.”
— George Gissing

MADISON, Wis. — I started smelling books — every serious reader does this — at the Tomah Public Library, but didn’t become an actual connoisseur until I discovered the great row of overflowing bookstores here, in the Sixties, when they almost outnumbered the bars on State Street.

There’s a particular technique to this, of course, which I won’t describe. If you smell books, you’ve mastered it. We who know keep it personal.

When I prowled the State Street booksellers — Paul’s, Brown’s Pic-a-Book, The Co-op, etc. — I got so I could identify the publisher by a book’s aroma. One sniff easily distinguished a pulp Bantam from a coated-stock Mentor Classic from a New Directions Paperbook. Each publisher used different blends of ink, glue, paper and cover stock, all of this lending its products a fragrance that could range anywhere from a hint of balsamico to a cord of fresh firewood.

And, of course, at Paul’s, the sacred temple of old, musty, dog-eared, hard-to-find, out-of-print volumes lost to the memory of all but a few crusty bibliophiles, I learned how age changes every book’s ambience. In an old book, there is dust and must, but also whiskey, coffee, sweat and blood. You take a risk plunging your face into the jaws of an old leatherbound. It could bite you with its pungence, or sting your eyes, make you sneeze, or drag you back to the first girl who ever gave you a copy of cummings and then broke your heart.

It can also disappoint. Opening, for example, my 1962 Revised Standard Bible to The Song of Solomon, I seek perhaps an intimation of myrrh, raisins, apples or a cluster of henna blossoms. But all I can conjure from this old Old Testament is the faint reminder of my Grandma Annie’s couch. And my copy of The Thurber Carnival — the 1945 paperback, bought used at the Booksmith, in Coolidge Corner (Brookline, Mass.) in 1986. I’d like it to smell of tweed and pipe tobacco, maybe a hint of large dog. But all I get, between “The Very Proper Gander” and “The Bear Who Could Leave It Alone,” is a flashback into the narrow spaces between tall shelves in a Carnegie library built sometime during the second decade of the last century. Nice, but not Thurber.

The book trade survives here, more than most cities, thanks to the local university, but it retains less abundance and barely any romance. Still, Paul’s lingers, to remind the world of how a bookstore should behave, including how to smell.

I come to this reflection by way of Francis X. Clines, who recently lamented, in the Times, the debut of a “brick & mortar” Amazon outlet in Manhattan. Clines toured the new joint, found it sterile and mercenary and deemed it a merciless harbinger of the slow death afflicting all other bookstores. He hinted that here, on Amazon turf, was no place to pause between the rows and plunge one’s nose into the fragrant spine of Anita Loos — if you could find her here.

Wrote Kline: “There’s no cafe to indulge idle time, and the floors don’t invite flopping with a book or a cranky toddler.” This store “lacks the little hand-written employee recommendations posted in independent bookstores as humanizing beacons.” He also complains that Amazon has limited its stock to a mere 3,000 of the most popular market-tested titles. The more obscure or “literary” volumes require a visit, apparently, to amazon.com.

Like all good essayists, however, Clines oversimplifies.

First of all, any browser who takes seriously the “recommendation” of a twenty-something bookshop stocker who thinks “manga” is Japanese for “book” deserves to be locked up for life in the Texas School Book Depository with nothing to read but a copy of the unabridged Warren Report.

Second, it wasn’t Amazon who invented the notion of limiting inventory to the most saleable few-thousand books in current print. This tradition long preceded my book-browsing days in Madison. It was refined, along with all those overstuffed chairs, coffee shops and toddler corrals by the so-called “big box” booksellers, Borders and Barnes & Noble. Both (or all three?) were culprits in the war on little independents before Amazon crashed the party, strangled Borders and sent B&N into a death spiral.

It’s a dog-eat-Dickens world out there. If I wanted a book old or weird, way back in ’63, I went to Paul’s, or to the endless shelves at the Co-op (now The University Book Store, a mere shadow of its old voluminosity). And, in those days, if I found a “cranky toddler” among the racks at Pic-a-Book, I would’ve scowled at its mom and asked the shop’s creepy cashier — whose perch was next to a vast selection of titty magazines — to set the little snot outside on the sidewalk. He would have done so agreeably, sharing my conviction that a bookstore is no place for dwarf illiterates.

Francis X. Clines lives in New York, which crawls with bookshops even today and lends him a warped perspective on what constitutes a proper librairie. Yes, there are coffee-shop/wine-bar/reading-nook boutiques that cater to yuppie moms with mozniks in combat strollers. But the truest bookstore in Manhattan — perhaps on earth — is the Strand, which sprawls and towers with books, covers half a city block, carries titles it hasn’t sold since the Depression and serves nothing edible or thirst-quenching. All you can sit on is the floor, which isn’t clean enough to be inviting. It’s a toddler-unfriendly environment. Here, grownups tend to be the cranky ones — especially if they’ve been hunting 45 minutes, to no avail, for the Strand’s only first edition of The Snouters, Harald Stumpke’s classic natural-history satire (1967).

In many respects, Amazon’s bookstore in New York harkens back to the utilitarian days of State Street yore, when someone setting foot in a bookstore was looking for, well, books, rather than a frappuccino, a Marimekko tote bag or a diaper station — a time when, actually, a bookstore was ideal refuge from the consumers of frappuccino and Marimekko.

The Big Apple’s soulless Amazon store boasts one other redeeming virtue. It would, if I were a somewhat more popular author, gladly and willingly stock any and all of my titles. Right now I have four, going on five, but (with rare exception) I’m banned from every Barnes & Noble box on earth, not to mention every “independent” bookseller (except for this one softhearted dame on Monroe Street named Joanne).

This petty injustice requires a lot of explanation, which all ends up sounding like authorial sour grapes. Suffice to say that these “independents” depend on a gigantic distributor — Amazon’s arch-rival. This behemoth muscles and cajoles booksellers into refusing any title associated with Amazon — which applies to me, because the publisher of my three most recent titles gets his printing done by an Amazon affiliate called CreateSpace. But I’m not alone. The blacklist covers 150,000 titles.

A little irony here: These “independents” every year put up displays that include Huck Finn, Lady Chatterley, Catcher in the Rye, Orwell, Mockingbird, Marx and Mein Kampf, to celebrate “Banned Books Month.”

But anyway… my latest title (available on Amazon) is A Sunday Kind of Love. It smells, ever so subtly, of a fresh-washed cotton sheet just brought in from the clothesline, in October.

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