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Why old books smell so good

Old book

You know how you go into a rare books library, or maybe an old used bookstore, and you step between the shelves and take a deep breath and there it is: that incredible old-book smell. To me, it always smells like leather and caramel and dust and sunlight, all blended together.

Turns out, there’s a scientific answer (as well as a teleoogical one) for just why old books smell so damn good:

This sign might be on to something. Smell is the scent most strongly tied to memory, and in my dreams (the real, I’m-asleep ones) I’m often combing the shelves of a vast secondhand bookstore, looking for treasures. Despite all the exciting possibilities opened up by e-readers, there’s one thing they don’t have, and won’t ever have: that old-book smell. What scent will subliminially stoke the e-book generation’s hunger for knowledge?

 Actually, one perfumer–Karl Lagerfeld–has actually created a perfume based on the smell of books. Has anyone out there tried it?

Join the Discussion

  • Now who will be the first to create a synthetic, sprayable “perfume” so I can spray my technical bookshelf?

    Gotta be inexpensive and last a long time.

  • I love the idea that it’s scent that subliminally contributes to our love of books!

    Perfumer Christopher Brosious of CB I Hate Perfume has a perfume called In the Library that smells like dusty paper and leather, and the line he used to compose scents for, Demeter, has one called Paperback.

  • Mike Fardon

    Apple and vanilla – now that could be a winning combination!

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  • Juliet

    In the Liberty Shop in London last March 2011 I tested a perfume called either ‘old books’ or ‘old library’ or some such. Forget the maker, no one you ever heard of. It did not smell as nice or interesting as an old book, was rather weak.

  • braybrigade

    I love this smell! That is fascinating that there is science behind it. There are actually quite a few takes on ‘old book’ perfumes out there. 

    CB I Hate Perfume’s ‘In The Library’ has been mentioned already, others I know of include:

    Good Judy’s ‘Book Nook’
    (Dark wood bookshelves, musky leather-bound books, aged parchment paper, soft velvet smoking jacket, overstuffed cushy chair, and a steaming cup of earl grey tea) 

    Poison Apple Apothecary’s ‘Book of Spells’ 
    (The scent of an archaic wooden chest, a large leather book, and the tattered pages contained therein. Perfume, lotion & soap available in this scent)

    My favorite perfumerie, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, has literally scores of perfume oils based on various literary works including everything from Shakespeare to H.P. Lovecraft to Neil Gaiman. Being lovers of literature, of course they have several blends containing notes reminiscent of libraries, bookshops & their wares:

    Philologus (Ancient books, crackled parchment, faded incense, and candle wax.)

    Dee (John Dee: master of science, alchemy and magic, Hermetic philosopher, and Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer, advisor, cryptologist and spy. His scent is soft English leather, rosewood and tonka with a hint of incense, parchment and soft woods.)

    The Lurid Library (The incense-tinged scent of forbidden tomes and the musk-laden remnants of infernal servants.)

    Miskatonic University (A venerable New England university, whose vast library holds many rare, diabolical and obscure arcane works, including one of the few surviving legitimate copies of the Necronomicon. Home to innumerable scholars of the esoteric and the occult, and the notorious Dr. Herbert West. The scent of Irish coffee, dusty tomes and polished oakwood halls.)

    Ü: Mutter Museum (A mélange of balsams, leathers, and raw vanilla designed to evoke images of unearthed secrets and dusty, ancient libraries.)

    So there are options out there for those looking! :) 

  • Celeste Ng

    Wow, thanks, braybrigade–I had no idea! (Wait, the Mutter Museum makes a perfume? Although this is one of my favorite museums–full of ideas for stories–I’d totally be afraid to smell that…)

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  • That’s so awesome. Now if only we could get that in a sprayable format I could use it on my iPad and maybe read an ebook for once!

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  • Vanilla! That’s the missing aroma I couldn’t identify! Great. Post. I just blogged about this very thing, and included a link to this post. They ought to bottle this scent and call it “Eau de Livre”…

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  • April

    LOVE this smell…that’s how I happened upon your page (Google search). Recently started using scented wax melts and I want that smell in our family office/”library”. I got several to try from a crafter called Frostbeard Studios…their “book lovers” collection. I bought ones called “Sherlock’s Study”, “Oxford Library” & “Bookstore”. Whereas they each smell good in their own way, none capture the exact “old book smell” I’m searching for. Ah, my quest continues…

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