The basement smells like old paint and metal; glue, newsprint, vanilla, sea-kissed sweat. A sign on a table upstairs lured me there looking for loot: “Books, $1 each.” I’m on Cape Cod 10 in the summer. After some dignified begging, I was offered an advance payment for the allowance. I chose the 20 book.
It took me a few months to get this done, which included a battered Roald Dahl suit and an illustrated version of The Secret Garden. Every time I open one, I go back to the basement, treasure hunting. I started to prefer old books to new ones, not just because of the inscriptions from strangers, but also the smell. Old books turn stories into portals; I never knew until then that reading could also be like traveling through time.
Science didn’t crack wormholes, but it deconstructed the scents that make the old book experience so appealing. Cecilia Bembibre, a lecturer at UCL’s Institute for Sustainable Heritage, specializes in the conservation of historic smells and spends a lot of time breaking down their particular components. In our digital age, old books qualify as her research; paper risks becoming a limited-edition perfume.
“We found that there were some compounds that kept coming up,” she explained. Like vanillin, which smells of vanilla; furfural, “like bread, almost like biscuits”; sour, lingering like vinegar; and hexenol, reminiscent of freshly cut grass. Some compounds smell like marzipan, while others reek of grape juice and mold, potentially fermenting the spice.
Bembibre samples the air of ancient libraries and cathedrals—not far from the source—an inspiration that drives the label to try and distill the funk of a Cape Cod basement. In 2017 German publisher Steidl and Wallpaper teamed up with Karl Lagerfeld and perfumer Geza Schoen to create a one-off fragrance Paper Passion. “I’m a paper maniac,” Lagerfeld declared at the time. According to reports, Schoen 10 was trying to balance the harsh smell of the Steidl headquarters in Göttingen, where the fragrance is based. In 20, Byredo produces a line of Bibliothèque candles as fragrances in response to fanatical customer demand. It was so popular that the fragrance was added to its permanent collection.