Our Reading Lives

That Secondhand 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

That secondhand bookstore smell is catnip to bookworms. And as a card carrying member of that order, I react to it like a cartoon character cat does when it smells mouse. Like Homer does for donuts. Mmm, good. I would apply “used paperback” to my pulse points. No, I wouldn’t. But I would scent my beach house with it, had I a beach house. (Still looking for a beach read? Here are the best of 2018.)


The New York Times recently researched thrift store fragrance. “We all know it, that musty, grandma’s attic-y smell that licks your nostrils the moment you cross the threshold of any vintage, consignment or used clothing store, no matter how high- or low-end.”

If “thrift store clothing” is the ambrosial fragrance of the thrift gods (Reduce, Recycle and Reuse), then “that secondhand bookstore smellis their nectar.

The secondhand bookstore also has that musty, attic-y smell, but better. Because it’s less animal? More vegetable? Mineral-y camphor, 1930s wool carpet in the best way? Read The Quest to Better Describe The Scent of Old Books from The Smithsonian.

The bread-y funk of a used bookstore’s scent of elegant decay and beautiful mildew is that of people soils, sweat, tears, skin. But unlike its thrift, consignment and vintage clothing store cousins, that used bookstore smell is punctuated by the hot, dry, desert smell of print. Ink on paper. Old glue. The slow rotting of books; that is how a perfumer captures the scent of a library.


How is that dusty, old-fashioned, secondhand bookstore smell achieved?

Easy. To two hundred pages of ink on paper: add heat, add time, and, under strict research conditions, perhaps drop it once it twice into a bathtub and break its gluey spine to dry it on a steam-heat radiator modeled after the one in my 1993 dorm room. Then have lots of people who have just eaten Cheetos thumb it. Then stick it in a winter mitten. Do this a thousand times over, and then add the hot fog of the coffee-breath of near-sighted bargain hunters.

“Duh. Mom, you are trying so hard,” my teenage kids say. “Secondhand bookstores just smell the opposite of new.” So how would you describe that secondhand bookstore smell?