The Smell of Old Books


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.

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