I’ve just returned from a trip to my home state, where I engaged in a lot of high-powered thrift store shopping, my cousin’s favorite sporting activity. I don’t buy very much on these excursions, because whatever I purchase has to be either shipped or schlepped back to California, a transaction that depresses the carefree, low-risk joy of the acquisition.
But I’m always in the market for reading material, so when I’m in a thrift shop, I check out the books. The prices at these stores can’t be beat, and often there’s something I can be tempted by.
The biggest problem with books at thrift shops (compared to used book stores, which are a whole different kettle of fish) is that you never know where those books have been. People clean out their attics, their basements, their garages, their fishing shacks, and their out houses, and they haul all that stuff to the thrift store. These books can literally stink. Mold, mildrew, rot, dust, dog pee, it’s all there to a greater or lesser extent.
And now let me tell you, my friends, that scientists are out there cataloging these smells.
Cecilia Bembibre, heritage scientist, and Matija Strlic, an analytical chemist at University College London, have been capturing, analyzing, and cataloging scents. They began by asking visitors to the Dean and Chapter library of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to describe the smell of the place, and they compiled the results in a document they call the Historic Book Odour Wheel.
The visitors most frequently described the aroma of the library as woody (selected by 100% of the visitors), followed by smoky (86%), earthy (71%) and vanilla (41%). More than 70% of the visitors described the smell as pleasant, 14% as mildly pleasant and 14% as neutral.
In a separate experiment, the researchers presented visitors to the Birmingham (UK) Museum and Art Gallery with an unlabeled 1928 book found in a second-hand bookshop in London. The word chocolate—or variations such as cocoa or chocolatey—were used most often, followed by coffee, old, wood, and burnt. However, study participants also mentioned smells including fish, body odor, rotten socks, and mothballs. This would be more like my thrift-shop experience.
Where do the smells of old books come from? Assuming it’s not the garage.
“Old book smell” is generated by the chemicals used in bookmaking as they break down the cellulose and lignin in paper. This action produces volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The different scents are created by different chemicals. For example, benzaldehyde adds an almond-like scent, and ethyl hexanol has a “slightly floral” scent. To build the The Historic Book Odour Wheel, the research team sampled and analyzed the volatile VOCs of the books.
Scents should be preserved for their historic value so that they can be recreated when the worlds they came from are lost, the researchers say. In addition, the Historic Book Odour Wheel could be used as a diagnostic tool by conservators, informing on the condition of an object—for example, its state of decay—through its olfactory profile. Bembibre envisions that the wheel could also be used to recreate smells and aid the design of olfactory experiences in museums.
The team has moved on to collect aromas from Knole House, a National Trust country house in Kent, which was the childhood home of the novelist Vita Sackville-West.
That’ s a long way from the thrift-shop book shelves of the upper Midwest, but it sure explains the smells. Moldy socks and all.