The scents that bring us home
“It’s a sneaky business, book collecting.” (Courtesy of Stephanie White Ferland)
Scent is powerful – and full of magic.
The smell of wood shavings or bar and chain oil places me in my dad’s workshop, where he sharpened chainsaws and did a bit of carpentry. The fragrance of freshly mown hay conjures the maze of bales in the hayloft at a childhood friend’s farm. When I smell lilacs, I can close my eyes and be tucked beneath the sheets, window open on a spring night. The scent of warm chocolate chip cookies makes me 6 years old, swinging my legs at the kitchen table in front of my after-school snack. The sweet earthy smell of pine planks warmed by the sun brings me straight back to the long sturdy porch of a high school friend.
And the tangy, dusty smell of old books is the best of all. It reminds me of library book sales and used bookstores – two of my favorite things.
The first library book sale I ever went to was over 40 years ago, in my hometown of Winchester. The Conant Public Library had culled their collection, and their loss was certainly my gain. The lawn of the library was covered with boxes and crates, tables were laden down with books of all kinds. People milled about, perusing the offerings as if this was just an ordinary day. For me, it was anything but. We were there to choose books that we could take home – and keep.
I was there with my mother, who had taught me the value of books from a very early age. We had a small collection of our own, but most of what we devoured came from the town library, to be loved and returned when we finished with them. There was a row of Little Golden Books, purchased with money squirreled away from the grocery budget every few weeks. We had a couple of hardback volumes of “Bible Stories for Children” sent from an aunt in Pennsylvania. There was a growing collection of Nancy Drew (mine) and The Bobbsey Twins (my sister’s). And, a complete set of “Little House on the Prairie” books. All of these were considered precious.
The first book I chose from one of the boxes on the lawn was “Blacky The Crow,” by Thornton W. Burgess. I couldn’t believe my luck. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Harrison, had just read this to our class. Having already decided I was going to be just like her when I grew up, I knew I needed a copy to be able to read to my class someday. And, as the Universe sometimes makes one’s dreams come true, I did indeed read that very book to my own students decades later.
I also chose a couple of hardback Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames books that day, but the other treasures I can’t recall. I do know that was the beginning of my love affair with used book sales, whether they are held on a library lawn on a summer day or in a dark and dusty bookstore with crooked floors and sagging shelves. They are magnificent places, and as far as I can tell there’s only one complication: Books beget books.
The copy of “Pride and Prejudice” I bought years later at the same library was so beautiful that it has led to scouring market stalls and antique stores, book shelves, and summer library sales for more of Jane Austen’s work. Ideally I’d like the books to be like the first one I acquired, with a fabric binding fraying slightly at the edges, the softest of yellowing pages, and an old-fashioned typeface. My shelves now hold three more Austen works, and I am sure I can make room for another.
I hold the Toadstool Bookshop in Keene responsible for my quest to find more books by Louise Andrews Kent. The 1940 copy of “Mrs. Appleyard’s Year” I found last year in their used book section has led me down a rabbit hole of no small proportion. Among other things, she wrote a cookbook and children’s books telling the history of towns in Massachusetts and explorers in Vermont. The bulk of her literary papers are housed at the Vermont Historical Society in Barre, and I have the dreaded feeling that someday I might even be inclined to go on a field trip to check them out.
The mint condition copy of “John of the Mountains: Unpublished Journals of John Muir,” a discard from the Silsby Free Public Library in Charlestown, made watching Ken Burns’ National Park series on PBS even more meaningful. The book, copyright 1938, is a collection of Muir’s journal entries from 1867-1911, and is a glimpse into his life as a naturalist, father, and husband. I sometimes open the book to the day’s date to see what Muir might have been doing on the same day in history. My favorite passage so far is from April 14, 1895. He writes: “The fifteenth anniversary of our wedding day, and soon will come my birthday. How the years begin to run! Only in the wilderness is Time’s flight hidden …”
I’ve become all too familiar with how the years begin to run, and also how my age seems to slip away when I am in the woods where no one cares about the strands of white in my hair, the lines on my face, or the extra pounds I carry. Now, having found and loved this book, I am in search of “Stickeen: The Story of a Dog.” I have faith in the serendipitous powers of book sales and know it shall find a place in my bookcase someday.
Finding a hardcover copy of Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” led me to “The Norman Maclean Reader,” and finally, “Young Men and Fire,” probably one of the most exquisite pieces of writing I have ever read. Then, I discovered Maclean’s son, John, is also a writer and thus began the search for his works. So now my piles include his “Home Waters” and “Fire on the Mountain.” You see, it’s a vicious cycle.
It’s a sneaky business, book collecting. Before you know it you’re persuading your husband to remain in good spirits when he moves 50 boxes of books from one home to another (this is a lot harder than it sounds – both the persuasion and the moving), while at the same time trying find a way to to casually mention that perhaps just one more bookcase might be a lovely thing to have.
But, then you remember that one of his favorite smells is homemade ragu, simmering all day on the stove, and you know exactly how to proceed.
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