Colm O'Regan: The smell of old books is a scent that defies simile but also one that smells like a colour

Colm O'Regan: The smell of old books is a scent that defies simile but also one that smells like a colour

As the nights and the curtains draw in, I find myself inexorably drawn to the musty delights of the secondhand bookshop. I might set off for town to buy Cif but then I wake up hours later with a guide from 1983 called ‘How To Get The Most From Your Personal Computing Machine’ which has an entire chapter on rewinding the tape.

The second hand bookshop has everything. Yes they do become dumping grounds for Dan Brown Novels. Multiple copies of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons line the shelves like sound-proofing. There are also many books on sassy girls-about-town negotiating the dating jungle. They have blurbs such as: “Tracey Palmer

should

hate Ryan Dupris. He’s everything in a man she despises: arrogant, sleazy and rude. But soon they are locked in a torrid affair and when a chance encounter with an old flames stirs new passions, Tracey finds she has to make a choice…” But you’ll also find a rare copy of “The trouble with the Irish” – A Victorian Travel book.

Difficult books tend not to be second-handed as quickly as their owners prefer to hold onto them. They hope that a visitor will pick their copy of “The Girl who stole the Kite Runner’s Book and Cycled to Tehran” and marvel at their host’s erudition.

Plus, if you bring a new copy of the The Wife’s Wife into a second hand bookshop you are telling the owner you can’t hack it in the reading world.

The true secondhand bookshop sits apologetically on the street. The exterior is usually a dark-green or similar colour (the shade that is also seen on the elbow-patched jacket of an inspirational though eccentric professor). When you go in first, it may not be immediately apparent where the bookseller is. You wander in a bit further. “H..Hello” you ask cautiously, worried that you might find him sprawled on the ground, his body arranged in a bloody ritual while on the shelf a space where the only surviving copy of ‘The Secret History of How Opus Dei, The Knights Templar and Jesus’ Grandchildren Are All In Cahoots’ has been taken by the killer.

Mercifully though, the owner is not dead. They are sitting at a desk appears to be into the shelf of books. They look up briefly and resume whatever mysterious business they are up to. Possibly it is researching a topic that will lead their ritualistic killing or more likely writing €3.00 on a copy of Ivanhoe with the same stubby HB pencil all booksellers have.

The best secondhand bookshops may originally have been constructed as one room but have long since been subdivided into alleys. The party walls are themselves made entirely of Book. There are some that it would be too risky to browse in case you compromised the structural integrity of the shop. Then there is the smell.

The smell of old books is like…well it’s like the smell of old books. It’s a scent that defies simile but also one that smells like a colour. A man called John Koenig coined the word vellichor to describe the strange wistfulness of a secondhand bookshop. They differ from new bookshops in that they are not dictated by what the industry thinks the public will buy – rather by what the public – or a clutter-clearing/mourning relative of the public – has brought in. The man or woman who runs the shop has never been able to say no to a box of books in their lives and so more priceless chunks of human aspiration are preserved for a little while at least.

Speaking of preservation, you could do your bit by making a secondhand book a Christmas present but it’s a little problematic. Last week I wrote about palming off secondhand toys on children but they won’t notice pre-ownership. Books are a different matter.

Christmas morning this year could be ruined by someone unwrapping their pristine copy of The Book of Longing and Sorry and Mad Stuff – a novel by ImportantAuthor McBookerprizington and then saying:

Wait a minute what’s this?!

“To Joan –with all my love Peter, Christmas 2008?!”

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