The Smell of Old Books

By Pia Ghosh Roy

August 3, 2015

The Smell of Old Books

There was a row of shops where the flyovers now swirl and swoop. The shops were cubes of tin and plywood on a strip of pavement in heaving, humid Calcutta. They stood under gulmohar trees; fire-red petals with shade as cool as coconut water. In this shade, on low wicker stools, sat the men who owned these shops, playing cards, passing time. They were gatekeepers of old books.

That’s what the little shops spilled over with. Floor to ceiling of Saul Bellows and Hemingways. The Brontes. Chekovs and Tolstoys. Tagore’s poems in green volumes, all gold-rimmed spine and leathery cover. Most of the shopkeepers had never been to school, nor spoke any English, yet they knew every author, every book, each edition that sat on their shelves. They were more reliable than computers in large bookstores.

These bookshops were also their homes; their rolled-up beds stood in one corner. When they took their afternoon siestas, the books around them breathed like old books do. Years of leafing and reading and lending had left imprints of skins, bits of DNA, along with inked thoughts along the margins, making them bearers of parallel stories. Printed, unprinted.

And so, in the midst of screeching mini-buses and screaming hawkers, these secondhand bookshops created a strip that smelled of ageing pages, a slower time. Of escape and silence and summer’s shade. And you bought a book as much to read the story as to bottle the smell and bring it home.


Photo "Signs" provided by arbyreed, via creative commons license.

Comments (21) - Post a Comment
Evocative and lovely piece.
Nancy Scott Hanway at 8:14am EDT - August 3, 2015
Love stepping into the world made complete by this piece. Great detail and imagery.
Pamela Rothbard at 8:36am EDT - August 3, 2015
There's no smell like an old book, and this piece capture its allure so well.
Debbie Hagan at 8:42am EDT - August 3, 2015
Reading this felt like walking into a scene from a foreign film--exotic and alluring. Just lovely.
Mary Van Denend at 11:24am EDT - August 3, 2015
Thank you so much for your kind words - they're much appreciated!
Pia at 2:36pm EDT - August 3, 2015
you bring back memories of simple pleasures! Love your style!
Anjana at 8:46am EDT - August 5, 2015
Beautiful and evocative, pulling together such contrast! Lovely writing - thank you!
Melissa at 1:38pm EDT - August 5, 2015
Thank you for reading and writing in. It means a lot.
Pia Ghosh Roy at 3:53pm EDT - August 6, 2015
This piece made me smile...and I can clearly see what you write...
Puloma at 9:24am EDT - August 9, 2015
I know you can. The 'Boulevard':)
Pia Ghosh Roy at 2:02pm EDT - August 9, 2015
I know you can. The 'Boulevard':)
Pia Ghosh Roy at 2:02pm EDT - August 9, 2015
Just gorgeous. Thank you for taking us there.
Gina at 5:28pm EDT - August 9, 2015
Smell of old books and your style of writing refreshed my memories of these book shops....thank you for the lovely piece!
Debarati Karan Dhar at 4:11pm EDT - August 21, 2015
Thank you, Gina.
Pia Ghosh Roy at 12:14pm EDT - August 23, 2015
Thank you so much for your kind words, Debarati!
Pia Ghosh Roy at 12:15pm EDT - August 23, 2015
Beautiful piece, Pia! Made me long to visit the old bookstores in Calcutta.

I love the smell of old books and the quaintness of bookstores like these. For that reason mostly, I love Bangalore's Church Street, a paradise for book lovers, with its many stores, selling both new and pre-loved books. Have you been there? I hope you have!

This post also brought to mind something I have always wondered about - how are these booksellers able to sell such precious books for such low prices? Sometimes I find a treasure in such shops priced very low, and I wonder if the shopkeeper even knows its value.
The Girl Next Door at 9:42am EDT - August 24, 2015
Thank you for such a lovely message. I do remember Church used to remind me of the bookshops in Calcutta! Yes, it's a wonder how you can often get absolute treasures for less than the price of a cup of chai. The best kind of recycling!
Pia Ghosh Roy at 4:22pm EDT - August 24, 2015
Lovely piece. Short but evocative. You have a unique ability to tug your readers into a freefall into sensations, emotions and personal memory. I wrote about my personal 'strip' (I suspect its the same one as yours) on my blog. Look for the post titled with a quote from this piece. :-)
Chandreyee at 11:21am EDT - September 3, 2015
Loved reading it ... expressed so beautifully..
simple girl at 4:21am EDT - September 4, 2015
Thank you...very touched.
Pia Ghosh Roy at 8:13am EDT - September 4, 2015
The content that I normally see is nothing like what you have written. This is very well-thought out and well-planned. You are a unique thinker and bring up great individualized points. Please continue your work.
Lauren Giles at 4:45am EDT - June 25, 2018

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