Friday, March 28, 2014

Scent of a Novel

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: So I was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn recently (yes, that alleged hotbed of hipster culture — don't judge!) and found my way into a small shop called CB: I Hate Perfume. (Now, CB, who is really award-winning olfactory genius Christopher Brosius — who doesn't really hate perfume as much as he hates mass-market, corporate-diven, celebrity-endorsed scents that all seem to smell alike.) Some of his fragrances include At the Beach 1966 (Coppertone 1967 blended with the scent of the North Atlantic, with notes of Wet Sand, Seashell, Driftwood, and just a hint of Boardwalk), Memory of Kindness (Tomato Vines, Fresh Earth, and Country Garden), and Where We Are There Is No Here (a blend of jasmines, inspired by the Cocteau film). He's also the "nose" behind actor Alan Cumming's frarances Cumming and Second (Alan) Cumming (with notes of "Sex, Scotch, Cigars and Scotland."

And — one that I immediately gravitated towards — In the Library.

Only for me it wasn't so much "in the library" as "in book-lovers' paradise." When I closed my eyes and sniffed, I felt transported to the library at Downton Abbey — those first editions, those leather bindings, maybe even a cup of steaming Darjeeling tea on a table.... Brosius describes "The Scent" of In The Library as:

 . . . a warm blend of English Novel*, Russian & Moroccan Leather Bindings, Worn Cloth and a hint of Wood Polish

*The main note in this scent was copied from one of my favorite novels originally published in 1927. I happened to find a signed first edition in pristine condition many years ago in London. I was more than a little excited because there were only ever a hundred of these in the first place. It had a marvelous warm woody slightly sweet smell and I set about immediately to bottle it.

And this is Brosius's "Story" of the inspiration of the creation of the scent:

I have always loved books. I am told this was the case even before I could read for myself. When I was very small, I loved the bedtime story and being read to by my mother. As a child, books provided a fantastic escape from boredom and a rather dreary daily life. As I grew older, I began to read voraciously and spent as much time as possible in the school library. I borrowed books with wild abandon and I read every one....

Whenever I read, the start of the journey is always opening the book and breathing deeply. There are few things more wonderful than the smell of a much-loved book. Newly printed books certainly smell very different from older ones. Their ink is so crisp though the odor of their paper is so faint. Older books smell riper and often sweeter. Illustrated books have a very different odor from those with straight text and this smell often speaks of their quality. I've also noticed that books from different countries and different periods have very individual scents too. These speak not only of their origin, but of their history to this moment. I can distinguish books that were well cared for from those that were neglected. I can often tell books that lived in libraries where pipes or cigars were regularly smoked. Occasionally I run across one that I am certain belonged to an older woman fond of powdery scent. Books from California smell very different from those I buy in New York, London or Paris. I can tell books that have come from humid places - these have a musty richness in the scent of their pages.

And then of course there are the scents of different bindings: the glues, the leathers, the cloths and boards, even the paperbacks all have very unique characteristics and, to my mind, add an extra dash of personality to an otherwise mundane object. And yes, sometimes if a book has had the misfortune of being very poorly kept, I can detect a faint whiff of mildew. This doesn't bother me in the least. It means this book has survived.

To many of course, these various bookish odors mean nothing. But to an avid reader and collector like myself, these smells are as magical as the bouquet of a great wine is to a connoisseur - a sort of literary terroir. These scents mean Excitement, Adventure, Discovery, Enlightenment and Knowledge. Of course my deep love of reading is exactly what lead me in the first place to begin capturing the scent of books and of the libraries where they live. That's what this perfume is all about.

Now, whenever I have the chance, I read aloud to my nieces and nephews. I am delighted they so enjoy this and are so eager to listen. I love sharing with them some of my own childhood favorites. There have been some very interesting discussions afterward about some of these...

But before I begin to read to the children, I always take a moment to open the book and encourage them to take a whiff. I hope for them, as it has been for me, this smell will mark the beginning of a long and wondrous journey.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Readers, I bought it.

But are there other fragrances with the scent of books? 

Lo and behold, I was intrigued to find out — yes. 

There's one from Christopher Brosius's former company, Demeter, called Paperback Writer (inspired by a Barbara Pym novel, "sweet and somewhat musty.")

There's also Paper Passion by Geza Schoen, Gerhard Steidl, and Wallpaper* magazine, with packaging by Karl Lagerfeld and Steidl. “The smell of a freshly printed book is the best smell in the world,” Karl Lagerfeld is quoted as saying.

And there's also Comme des Garcons 2, the scent of "Japanese ink drying on parchment in the summer sun," with notes of "
Japanese Sumi ink, incense, patchouli, cedarwood, angelica root, vetiver, magnolia, amber, labdanum, new aldehydes, cumin, cade oil, absolute maté, abslolute folia." 

And so, Reds and gentle readers, do you love the scent of books? Would you be interested in wearing the scent of a book? Spraying it around your home? Spritzing your e-reader?

P.S. I don't know Christopher Brosius personally, this is not an ad in any way, just something that as a book lover (and sniffer) I find fascinating.... Yes, I paid full price for In the Library. Worth every scent, er, cent, too.


Joan Emerson said...

While I most definitely love the scent of books, this is the first I’ve heard of perfume that supposed to remind me of that distinctive fragrance. [Actually, once I discovered Karl Lagerfeld’s Sun, Moon, and Stars, I basically stopped trying any other perfumes.]
I’m not at all certain I’d want to wear “essence of library,” but I’d definitely do the room spray . . . and spritzing the cover on my eReader . . . heavenly!

Mark Baker said...

I love the scent of a new book as much as I love the scent of old books like in a library or used bookstore.

But, no, I would want to wear it as a perfume. I'm a guy, what can I say.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Joan, that's what I'm doing!

Mark, it's a very masculine scent.

I really wish it were a candle -- that would be perfect.

Jack Getze said...

Fun read. The book perfume sounds like a great addition to my bag of marketing tricks. Will wear at my next signing, see if it draws any book buyers.

Reine said...

A day in my study carrel in the stacks and I had to fend off the undergrads with my Brigg umbrella. I'm not sure I need that much attention. xoxo

Ellen Kozak said...

Artificial scent is still artificial scent. Better to have the book than the smell of it. (Besides, there's not enough to read on the label. I'm with Steve Allen, who once said that if there was nothing else around to read, he'd "read the label on a jar of Vick's.")

By the way, even mention of the scent of Vick's Vapo-Rub, like the scent of Coppertone, should be enough to to send most of us time traveling. Madeleines,anyone?

Kristopher said...

Well, I for one would certainly be interested in seeing what this smells like. I like the idea of spraying my e-book cover. ;)

Susan, you must wear it to Bouchercon this year. So we can all enjoy it.

As for Library scented candles...there are a plethora of them out there on the internet, but I have yet to find one is a store that I can sniff first.

Mary Sutton said...

For personal wear I prefer the scent of vanilla, but I'd definitely consider a candle.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

This is too hilarious.. I love fragrance, but on me, some perfumes smell like bug spray.

Yes, a candle is a good idea. I feel so pedestrian, liking cinnamon candles.

Coppertone! I could wear that just as is. Bain de Soleil, too. Talk about evocative!

But smell o' books? Not sure I'm convinced--Susan, I bow to your research and gorgeous photos, and hope you all bring examples to Bouchercon..


Mary Sutton said...

Hank, not pedestrian. My favorite candle scents? Cinnamon, vanilla, and spruce. =)

Kaye Barley said...

I love this! CB: I Hate Perfume in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is now on my list of places I want to visit. and Susan? Yes!!! I would have tumbled for the fragrance, I'm sure. I know I would love it.

I've never heard of Christopher Brosius. He sounds quite fascinating to me. I am always curious about fragrances and always bugging Denise Hamilton about them. She just sent me a few samples of fragrances featuring lemon. I would never have heard of them on my own and she is a wealth of info.

Apparently, many of the classic fragrances have stopped using the more expensive natural ingredients that were original to their scent, and replaced them with artificial ingredients. Not always a successful switch.

So yes, I agree with CB - I'm not a fan of most perfumes any more either, and for sure not the "celebrity scents." I am a lover of Jo Malone though and I know I would fall in love with many of CB's scents.

Deb Romano said...

The first thing that came to mind when I read this post was my nine-year old self sprawled in a chair, reading a mystery, and enjoying a snack consisting of peanut butter on a slice of bread. Even though I've been to numerous libraries and bookstores in my life, books and reading are connected to peanut butter sandwiches in my mind! (Or, in the summer, tomato sandwiches and mayo, with the tomatoes being from my grandmother's garden, and me trying not to smear the mayo on the library book I'm reading.) So I really can't decide what a book-inspired perfume would smell like to the general reader:-)

Kim said...

I LOVE this! Like Joan, I'm not sure that I'd wear it, but I would spray it. I often order used books online for my research, and the first thing I do when they arrive is open them and smell them. So I would definitely use this as a room spray.

Hank, cinnamon candles are my favorite. Along with lemongrass. Count me in as pedestrian too!

And Susan - buy an unscented candle (a good soy one is best) and once the wax heats up, add 1 or 2 drops of the perfume to it. I've done this before with essential oils to get a candle smell I want.

Deborah Crombie said...

So interesting! Makes me wonder if Brosius's brain is wired slightly different than most people's with such developed scent discrimination. True of most perfumers, maybe?

Would I wear it? He doesn't say what he uses to get the smell of books... if there are synthetics I might not be able to. Can't wear most "department store" perfumes, so usually stick to Jo Malone.

Although I've very intrigued by Joan's mention of Lagerfeld's Sun, Moon, and Sky. Sounds irresistible!

Deborah Crombie said...

And now the copy edit: --slightly "differently," and I certainly meant "I'm", not "I've." Morning fingers...

Denise Ann said...

Who knew? You introduce us to the darndest things!

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

I will bring it to Bouchercon and have it in my bag so you can request a spritz if you want. (I bought the room spray, not the perfume, although I really sort of want actual perfume now — it's such a yummy, sweet, leathery and warm smell.... (to me, at least...)

Debbie Carney said...

I'd love to try the Japanese ink one :)

Do you know how/where to buy it?

Julia said...

I have got to try some of these when I'm in NYC next. (Don't think I can find many to squirt on here in Maine...)

I also have to add (in link form, since we can't seem to embed in the comments) Alan Cumming's sexy, funny somewhat NSFW ad for his fragrance:

Deborah Crombie said...

Julia, just watched the Alan Cumming ad. Hysterical!!! And sexy!!!

Kathy Reel said...

Whatever did I do before becoming a reader of this blog? Wasn't Kaye just saying yesterday about the delightful surprises this blog provided? "Scent of a Novel" needs to be the next title of the next book and follow-up movie. CP and his fragrances are the very definition of intriguing. His descriptions of scents and reading is something I want to copy and print out. Amazing! Susan, I so would have bought it, too.

Jack, great idea to wear it at your next book signing. Joan, love the idea of spritzing such a scent on my e-reader cover. Debs, I'm thinking CP's brain must be wired a little differently, too, to be so attuned to the finer details of scents.

I actually prefer new book scent to old book scent, but that may be because so many old books I've smelled have been on the musty side. I long for the days when I would embarrass my kids by opening a new book in a bookstore and taking a sniff. Good times. LOL!

Thank you, Christopher Brosius, for sharing your wonderful reminisces about reading and scents. Thank you, Susan, for sharing your experience at CP's and introducing us to him.

Hallie Ephron said...

Who knew!?!? Thanks so much for sharing, Susan.

My favorite scents are citrus. Orange, grapefruit... rind not fruit. And I'm a sucker for old fashioned Old Spice on my husband. One inhale and "I go misty" (cue Johnny Mathis).

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Julia (and all) -- just watched the Alan Cumming clip. I guess that settles the boxers or briefs question.... : )

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Also, if anyone wants samples, you can order from

Marianne in Maine said...

Although I love the smell of an old library I don't think I'd like to wear it as perfume. This is the first I've heard of it. Wow!

No, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't buy it. I'll buy the books instead.

Anonymous said...

This is the first time I heard of perfumes with the scent of books. Loved the title of your essay today called "Scent of a Novel". it made me think of the movie "Scent of a Woman" with Al Pacino and Chris Donnell.

Love the idea of perfumes that smell like books. I would prefer a scent of books in a magazine instead of the current perfume samples because they overlap and can overpower you.

Also thought about these "scratch and sniff" books that I used to read when I was a kid.

While I like the smell of books, I can tell the difference between a well cared for book or a neglected book. Some books have a moldy smell because they were not cared well and that smell makes me sneeze.

I knew someone who had asthma so they put books behind a glass case so these books never gathered dust.

Thanks for an excellent post,

Reine said...

omg. the alan cumming video. thank you.