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The Nose Knows: A Perfumer Captures the Scent of a Library

Jennifer Paull

Staff Writer

Jennifer Paull walks quickly.

To book lovers like us, the smell of leather-bound tomes or fresh paperbacks can be utterly seductive. Ever wish you could bottle that mysterious library scent, the aroma of rummaging through the stacks? As it turns out, renegade perfumer Christopher Brosius has done just that.

With his line of scents under the banner I Hate Perfume, Brosius captures certain experiences, like walking in a snowstorm. Among his favorite experiences are hours spent browsing in bookshops or getting lost in a story, so book-inspired scents were a natural step. Several of his perfumes have a literary connection, such as A Room with a View, sparked by the Forster novel. (Sniff the violet-based scent and dream of George kissing Lucy.)

With his In the Library perfume, though, Brosius evokes the books themselves, conjuring up Russian and Moroccan leather bindings, cloth, and a rare English novel. In an exclusive Q&A, he opens up about the process of making the biblio-perfume, his bookish passions, his upcoming projects – and that elusive novel.

BR: Your scent profile for In the Library is practically a short story in itself. Could you explain in layman’s terms how you made this perfume?

CB: Much of it was being incredibly familiar with books and how they smell. The smells vary by the country where the books come from: the paper produced there, the leathers used, the glue, the inks. I couldn’t describe exactly how the leathers smell different, but they do. Moroccan and Russian and Spanish, they’re all different.

So what do you find in a library that emits a smell? What are the key elements that would make that olfactory experience really pop? I take a lot of notes. [In the Library] is really about the books themselves, less so the environment, like the shelves or the dust.

Then I sit down with a whole bunch of chemicals and blend them together. It’s a very mundane process. I know these chemicals will combine to create certain smells – for instance, the scents of different kinds of papers.

My smells are really very specific and are very experiential – about encountering some place or some thing that you know and love. I’ve always had a talent of putting smells in a very precise context. It’s one thing to say, “here’s a bunch of paper,” but how do you make it smell to the greatest number of people like the experience of being in a library?

Fortunately I do have a knack of putting smells into a very exact context. Instead of “oh, this is a flower,” it’s “oh, this is the exact smell of the violets on my grandmother’s windowsill.”

BR: Did you visit or travel to certain libraries or bookshops, sniffing out your path?  Or were you working from memory?

CB: This particular one is a very general scent for me – the accumulation of a lifetime’s experience of bookstores and libraries.

It’s been on my mind for several years now to make scents for specific libraries I’ve visited. A library in a baroque castle I visited in Austria once, a library in an old English country house, or one of my favorite French bookshops in Montreal…. It would be really changing that experience [of In the Library] and making it even more specific.

A beautiful illustrated modern book has a very specific smell which is mostly the inks used. But the molecules that make up a lot of smells don’t exist in a perfumer’s palette. The usual perfumer works with flowers, pretty things. To get the smell of ink requires a much harder search. And certain chemical smells in fact are rather toxic, they’re very volatile…. The smell of newspapers, of magazines, of new books, those inks are very hard to create. But I’ve been working on it with a bunch of technicians and we recently arrived at an ink scent.

I was thinking of a mystery series based on Agatha Christie, like “Sparkling Cyanide” or “Body in the Library.” You could do a whiff of gunsmoke, a hint of tea. And I think of more exotic novels that I like to read… but there are only so many hours in the day!

BR: You’d mentioned that the main note of In the Library was from a first edition of a rare 1927 novel. Which novel was this?

CB: You may know the author because he was extremely popular and his book Whisky Galore is still in print. It’s Sir Compton MacKenzie – he wrote two novels about his experiences on Capri before, during, and after the First World War.

The second one, Extraordinary Women, is essentially about a group of lesbians on Capri just as the Second World War is ending. It’s charming, it’s hilarious, it’s farcical. The Hogarth press did a reprint in 1987, I think. It had an old Charles Martin illustration on the cover and I just loved the novel.

I found out that originally there were 2,000 copies printed and 100 of which were signed, but the book was promptly banned in England. People are and were so crazy; it’s not explicit in the least! But at the time it must have been considered a little too much for the general public.

So back in ’97 or ’98 I was spending a lot of time in London and I was poking through a shop in Cecil Court, which is off Charing Cross Road. Cecil Court is lined with specialist shops, one specializes in PG Wodehouse, another that specializes in sporting books…. One was packed full and run by an old man who just glared at you as you came in.

I have a technique: I look at every title. I start at one end and work to the other. There was a yellow spine that caught my eye; it was the color that first drew me to it. I saw Compton Mackenzie and thought “oh!” Then I saw the title and thought “OH!” Then I opened to the title page and saw it was a first edition. Then I saw it was signed and I nearly shrieked. I tried to stay calm and said casually, “I’m interested in this one.” It was 40 pounds.

The whole shop smelled amazing. The book itself had such a wonderful smell, very papery and slightly sweet from the cellulose. It was old and musty and obviously since [the book] was in an English library for who knows how long, it was damp and musty. It was also sort of clear that whoever owned the library smoked a pipe pretty heavily. So when I got back to New York I sent it to a lab for analysis.

There’s a technique used in the fragrance business to begin to understand an odor. It’s called headspace. Headspace is when the air around an object is captured and analyzed, because that’s what the nose is recognizing. That was the foundation of that English novel smell – the base of In the Library.

BR: What are some of your other favorite libraries or bookshops – places you love for their books and staff, as well as their scent?

CB: I do love the Strand [in New York City] and I’ve found some marvelous things there. Unfortunately a lot of the bookstores in New York have been shoved out, but the Strand fortunately is still there. A lot of my favorites where I can spend hours are in Cecil Court, like Nigel Williams, which specializes in P. G. Wodehouse. [BR: sadly, Nigel Williams recently closed.]

There are also some in smaller English towns like Rye. Rye has some wonderful bookshops…. At the moment, I’ve been reading a lot in French – I was going to Montreal a lot to get books there. Montreal has marvelous bookshops, new and old. Two shops for new books are Archambault and Renaud-Bray, and then there are countless incredible second-hand shops.

BR: Have you read anything particularly outstanding recently?

CB: The last few months have been so busy, I really need to divert myself. So I’ve been re-reading Cold Comfort Farm, which is hilarious. I read a book by Chris Adrian called The Great Night, which is a new look at the whole Titania / Oberon thing in a park in San Francisco.

Also, the last books in the Wicked years series, Out of Oz.  When I was reading it I was very disappointed in the end but then looking back, I thought, “It does make sense, what he’s doing….”

Stella Gibbons, some of Nancy Mitford, E. F. Benson – which is how I got to Rye in the first place. Benson lived in Rye and was mayor of Rye. In his Lucia series, Tilling is Rye! Everything he describes in the novel is there in Rye except the garden room, which was destroyed by a bomb in the war. You can see where all of the action took place; you can see where Mapp and Lucia was washed out to sea on a kitchen table!

When I first went out there it was January or February; it was quite cold. I was wearing a huge brown fake-fur coat – very Edward Gorey. I was wearing it when we went to Rye. I remember walking up Mermaid Street, a little cobbled street right up the hill. This woman is on the other side of the street, with a scarf over her head, wearing a cardigan with another cardigan over it, with a little wicker shopping cart. Her eyes are wide open and her mouth is in a little “O” and she’s staring at me and staring at me and she’s turning her head… until she fell right off the sidewalk! She went right off the curb. After we picked her up and made sure she was OK, my friend was crying with laughter, saying “that is right out of E. F. Benson!” The spirit of Tilling is alive and well in Rye today. It’s well worth a visit.

BR: Is there any other book or literary work that you would like to capture in a perfume?

CB: A lot of my perfumes have a literary bent at some point – like with Colette, how she describes things so simply, so sensually. And there’s an extremely obscure Stella Gibbons novel I love called Bassett – that’s where the phrase “soaked earth” came from. [The name of one of Brosius’s scents.]

Now there is a perfume I’m working on that’s inspired by The Tale of Genji that will be made from extremely rare ingredients. It will be fabulously expensive because they’re incredibly hard to get. Much of it has to do with the Japanese ritual of burning incense. There are two words for it: one’s the ritual of burning incense and the other is a game where incense is burned and people are asked either to identify or they’ll burn various things and try to combine a smoke that’s really beautiful. Or people will talk about poetry or literature or what the smell the smoke inspires in them. That was very popular at the time that The Tale of Genji was written.

A lot of [the perfume’s rare raw materials] are among the most expensive natural materials on earth, $50,000 to $125,000 a kilo. It’s almost like cutting the Koh-I-Noor – you study for years before you pick up the mallet for the diamond. Japanese collectors have paid a million dollars for a block of this wood…. The process of extraction approaches art. These are not materials to be monkeyed around with; it’s not a function of gratifying your curiosity.

Even when I’m describing the perfumes, there’s a literary element. I collect quotes; I keep a running list of quotes from whatever I read or movies I’ve seen. I will use a lot of those to describe my perfumes. Those can come from varied sources. Colette, Stella Gibbons, a couple from Shakespeare…

Speaking of Stella Gibbons, Penguin is about to release Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm. It’s arriving on November 29 – I’ve got it on pre-order!