Can You Smell that Smell? ( With All Due Respect to Lynard Skynard)

What is in that siren smell of old books? I recently ran across an online competition for describing the specific and alluring odor. Pretty fascinating, actually. Turns out, as does everything under our fabulous sun, the scent that taunts our nostrils has to do with chemistry, the human brain, and, perhaps, nostalgia. The magic ingredient, it seems, is vanilla ~ like ice cream, pudding, and pie ~ all the yummy memories from childhood. Who knew?


Luca Turin, Tania Sanchez ~ Perfumes: The A-Z Guide

Knowing this helps explain the grip books have always had on me. It also sheds light on the life-long appeal libraries have held. The featured photo at the top of this post is the Louisville Free Public Library on York St. in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. As a child and through my early teen years, I spent most of any free time I had inside this magnificent building. Not one to have much of a social life ~ and a bit of a recluse ~ I found this library a warm and welcoming home away from home. My childhood home was located in what was then on the outskirts of the city, a place called Buechel in Jefferson County.

Ariel view of Buechel, KY
Ariel View of Buechel, KY

Fortunately, a Blue Motor Coach bus stop was almost at my doorstep, so Saturday mornings, during the school year, and many summer break days found me boarding that bus to head downtown.

Blue Motor Coach Bus
Image of Louisville Free Public Library
Louisville Free Public Library

Surprisingly, I remember always feeling an anticipation while stopping, starting, and lunging forward and backwards on the bus. Perhaps that’s a memory I have invented over time, but when I think of those trips, I remember a gut feeling of excitement. Anyway, is there any wonder I loved going in this building?

Louisville Free Public Library Interior

Just looking at the photo above gives me a soft ache of nostalgia. Every time I walked through those massive doors onto the shining marble floor and the sweet, old, lingering essence of vanilla met me, I knew the world could be completely mine, if only I could linger long enough. Somehow, I seem to remember thinking, my presence alone would allow me to absorb the vast banks of knowledge ~ just through touching, holding, and, yes, whiffing those stacks of books, while moving from one awesome room to the next, up and down the gorgeous stairs, and sitting to ponder the magnificence of this architecture. For a girl who had not been anywhere or seen anything like this, just to know I was welcome at any time and free to stay as long as I like, well, that was truly something.


While I tasted the smorgasbord of offerings, inevitably, I ended up with literature, science, and history books to carry home, stacked high, both arms cuddling them, with fingers entwined, so as not to let them loose upon the ground. These gems were way to precious for that!

Image of girl carrying a big stack of books, while walking down stairs
Going Up Was Easier than Coming Down

So, you won’t be surprised to learn I, maybe like you, fell deeply in love with books, and that love has lasted all these years. Some of you know I began collecting old books a long time ago, even as a child. I’m drawn to covers from the Art Nouveau, Art Deco, as well as earlier and later periods, but also to those books I spy at estate and garage sales that look as if they have offered a good read, a story to help us understand who we are ~ and why ~ and have suffered from children’s sticky fingers, adult tea and coffee cups, reckless owners, who let them lie in damp or dry spaces. Do you know these books?


My home is now filled with such volumes. Some still have monetary value, but more importantly, they hold remnants from past worlds that, I would suggest, are good to remember and listen to ~ for good and bad. This is a partial set of Charles Rollin’s, Ancient History  1829, leather bound with spotting on the pages, and a bit ratty, but aren’t they grand?

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I must have been born with Romantic leanings, because early on the fluid and often opulent books covers attracted me. Without knowing what they were, images from the Romantic period caught me, every time. This antique volume of, ABC Barnens Forsta Bok, a Swedish language book by A. Hult, 1860, is a children’s first alphabet book and illustrated beautifully in lavish lettering, detailed scrolling, and effusive drawings ~ just my style!

Pearson’s Magazine ~ 1899


My interest in books and book covers expanded, and I began collecting. This is one of my early finds. Actually, a neighbor gave it to me for babysitting her children. I really needed cash, but as you might imagine, the cover on this volume of Pearson’s Magazine, 1899,  was more than enough payment, although my parents were not thrilled. It wears one of my favorite Art Nouveau covers. Ornate, with stylized white flowers, nestled snuggly within a green womb-like stamen, just on the verge of bursting forth, the cover shouts Art Nouveau ~ the new art. Geometric elements in red frame the image, but even they slip into small scrolls and waves, as if the lines simply can’t contain themselves.  As a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, with its machines, hard angles, gears, and the consequent changes in everyday life,  Nouveau made its statement ~ big time.

New York Nights, Stephen Graham ~ 1925 ~ Illustrated by Kurt Weise

This is another fave in my collection that one of the awesome librarians gave me. I had become fairly well known at the downtown Louisville library, and the workers often gave me tattered and stamped discarded books. But, for some reason, this one had never been processed through the library, so is free of any such markings. Now, I’m astounded she just gave it to me, but as it is with books, many, even librarians, aren’t aware of value. So, I was introduced to Art Deco. As much as I love Nouveau, Deco is right on its heels. The two often are confused, but the difference between them clarifies in a comparison of the covers. While Pearson’s shows the intricately flowing floral design that ebbs and wanes within itself, the celebrated design on this glorious volume of New York Nights, 1925, by Stephen Graham and illustrated by Kurt Weise, is streamlined and sleek with geometric constructions ~ none of the flowery, flowing imagery of the Nouveau period. The two eras definitely overlap, demonstrated by the geometric angles that frame Pearson’s cover. Deco covers often fold in a flower or two, but these images tend to be bold and daring, in the vein of stereotypical patriarchal hardness, strong and virulent. No faux wombs or gestating flowers, pushing toward the light, cloaked in that era’s cultural concept of femininity. The lines in Graham’s cover are clean, clear, and to the point, with concrete and metal buildings that tower over the tiny humans that line the bottom of the frame. Gatsby’s galore!

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Well before my school syllabi included them, thanks to access to the library, I had already come across Chaucer, Shakespeare, Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman (who became my life’s guru and to whom I return time and time, again), and studies on the universe, the beginnings of Earth, the concept that we came from stardust, and so on. Not that my young, still-developing brain was capable of grasping the profound ideas put forth by these writers; rather, and more importantly at the time, hanging out at the library made me aware of them and certain of more to come.

Image of Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer


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Image of Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman
Emily Dickinson
Image of woman waiting for a bus
Waiting for a Bus

So, that’s a bit of my journey. Certainly not any more interesting than yours or those other others, but in the telling of it, I am remembering and learning about myself and my history. I recommend that to everyone. But, I’m afraid I have wandered, haven’t I? Perhaps it’s time to step back onto the Blue Motor Coach bus and head back to Buechel with my arms filled with tons of words, images, and yet-to-be-discovered knowledge. If you have stayed with me on this little excursion, I hope you enjoyed my visiting library home and think it a trip worth taking. Until next time, I welcome your thoughts.

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10 thoughts on “Can You Smell that Smell? ( With All Due Respect to Lynard Skynard)

  1. I have really enjoyed reading your story, Betty – I felt like I was right there with you on that bus and lost in that library. I have never seen a library like that in person – what a magnificent experience that must have been! I am not sure I would ever want to leave a library like that! I, too, have a deep love for books and appreciate their covers. When we designed our home, we included a library with floor to ceiling book shelves. It’s my favorite room to sit in, surrounded by all those books and their smells. Thank you for this fun journey!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, JD ~ Libraries are such a wonderful haven for kids. I don’t know what I would have done without mine. When I put this post together and saw the photos, I thought, “I took this place for granted.” I confess the beauty of it took be back at bit. How lucky was I? How wonderful to have your own library in your home! Can you smell vanilla?


  2. Beautifully written! And what a gorgeous library! The library in Birmingham is similarly styled, but I didn’t see it until I was all grown up with kids of my own. The library in our little town, which I visited every chance I got, too (and almost always checked out a certain, big book on rocks) was small. But oh, the smell, the creaking, wooden floors, and the books. Ah, the books. That building is a museum now. Our library is now in a modern building with no creaking floors and no coziness. But I still like it.

    I love the book covers you shared with us. They would be favorites of mine, too. And…. who knew the smell was vanilla-y? Interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Betty, I was really taken back by the architecture of the library. It was so magnificent and bigger than life. I’m sure to a young girl that building and all its books did seem like it contained everything wonderful that could come possibly to mind.

    Liked by 1 person

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