That Old Book Smell

| October 25, 2013 | 3 Comments

I’ve always been fascinated by books. They’re an essential part of my life – I’m usually reading about three or four at any given time, and I can’t call any place home until I have at least a few of my favorites up on a shelf. It makes sense, then, that some of my favorite places in the world are bookstores and libraries – especially old bookstores and libraries. I can spend hours in them, roaming the narrow corridors between the shelves, reading books with strange covers by authors I’ve never heard of. It’s a good way to get lost.

About three years ago, I found a picture online of a room in a bookstore. It had no walls; instead, it had bookshelves – or rather, the bookshelves were the walls. Books lined every inch of the shelves and spilled over onto a chair. An old, worn-yet-comfortable-looking blue armchair sat in one corner. Simple light fixtures hung from the ceiling. And I fell in love. For years, I had been coming up with ideas for the private library that I was determined to have one day, and suddenly here it was. This place, unlike most other places, didn’t seem to care about appearances. There was no neatness, no order. All that mattered were the books. I looked at the caption. Shakespeare and Company, Paris, it said. Right then, I decided that I had to visit the place. It was only fitting that it was located in Paris, a place that I already associated with romanticism.

Shakespeare and Company, 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, Paris

The photo which started it all. Fun fact: The bookstore was founded by George Whitman, a BU alumnus.

For the next three years, I built up a slightly unhealthy obsession with the bookstore, but I never really thought about when I might visit it. This summer, I finally got the chance.

When I first saw the entrance to the store, I stopped dead. It was a little hard to believe, but I was finally here. I slowly walked inside. I didn’t realize it until later, but I was holding my breath as I walked in. I think my heart may have stopped. The books were everywhere - stacked on knee-high tables and crammed into the shelves. There were a few first edition copies inside a glass case. “Please touch,” the sign on the case proclaimed, so I did. I ran my hands over the old, yellowed paper. I felt and heard and saw the old leather spine of the book crackling as I flipped it open. All around me was the smell of books, one of my favorite smells in the world. I could hear the tinkling of a piano coming from somewhere above me.

I went up a flight of narrow, rickety stairs which felt as old as the city itself. Upstairs, dim yellow lights – I’m obsessed with yellow lighting – illuminated the walls of books. Here, the smell of books was stronger. The books smelled older. I could practically feel the literary genius in the air; this was the city of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, the city of romance and writing, where ink and wine flowed as freely as water. And this bookstore felt like the center of it all, the place where fiction and reality sat side by side and shared the same cup of coffee. Typewriters lay on windowsills and on tiny coffee tables, as if the bookstore had decided never to leave the 1950s. The piano, the source of the music I had heard before, sat in one of the rooms, where a young man had drawn a small crowd of spectators. And in the library of the bookstore, the place with the oldest books which everybody was allowed to read but nobody was allowed to buy, sat the blue armchair from my photograph. The moment I saw it, I knew what I had to do. I scanned the shelves, looking for a book. I picked one off the shelf at random, sank into the armchair, and did what I do best in any bookstore.

I got lost.

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Category: Art and Literature, featured

Neel Dhanesha

About the Author ()

Neel Dhanesha (CAS '14) likes books. And photography. And books about photography. And photographs of books. When not reading or photographing, he can be found stabbing people at fencing practice or writing.

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  1. E-Books: A Love/Hate Relationship | Culture Shock | December 4, 2013
  1. Will says:

    Nice post.

  2. Emily Hurd Emily Hurd says:

    This is perfect. As an aside, this is why I have not yet (and most likely never will) jumped on the e-book bandwagon.

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