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That Bookstore Smell

Elizabeth Bastos

Staff Writer

Elizabeth Bastos has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, and writes at her blog 19th-Century Lady Naturalist. Follow her on Twitter: @elizabethbastos

I used to live in Cambridge in the early ’90s before ebooks, before the iPhone, when I was in my 30s, during the swing dance revival. I used to frequent bookstores. The Harvard Coop, The Harvard Bookstore, the Grolier Poetry Bookshop which, gentle people, if you can believe it, was and still is, all poetry.

Bookstores were meeting places. They had smells. Waxed wood floor, old wool carpet. The inside of an umbrella. They weren’t fancy. Especially the bookstores of my childhood in Pittsburgh. That you went to certain bookstores, in certain neighborhoods, was evidence of your coolness and grit. Heads Together, Squirrel Hill: anyone who was there in the ’70s knows about the waterbeds.

I would say to friends, “Meet me at six in the German sci-fi section of the HB.” Then we’d side-by-side browse. Picking through art books that smelled of cream and were too expensive to ever buy, or saying things like “early Calvino is the best.” If I was browsing with a gentleman, it would be a date; for instance, in the cookbook section of the Harvard Bookstore with my future husband, I read about lasagna.

Bookstores were places where things happened, where you learned intimate things about your friends, watching them as they went up on eager tippy-toe to reach Watership Down, or Pauline Kael’s movie reviews.

My local now is now the sterile Barnes & Noble of Pikesville. It’s mostly toys and soapdishes, and greeting cards; it has the manila-envelopes-and-coffee smell of a boardroom. So I like to start up conversations if I see someone furtive in the poetry section.

I latch on to them with a smile in what I hope is a really not-creepy way: Hey pal! Read any Anne Carson? Autobiography of Red? It’s my way of saying: Hello.