In a free afternoon last week I went to The Strand Bookstore, a beautifully large mess of books – new, old, a smattering of favorites and deliciously intriguing new reads. I wandered, browsing for a long time. Surrounded by books, the infinite possibilities of prose and poem, I am in my favorite state of being. Libraries and bookstores are my havens of comfort and stability. Even my room has an obscene number of books stacked in all corners, spilling over in large flows from my bookcase. Especially in times like today, when the concreteness of my own life is awash with confusion and ungrounded future, promise of the other worlds housed in literature beckons unavoidably. The Strand boasts to have “18 miles of books”; and I didn’t doubt it while perusing their crowded floor to ceiling shelves, cases, tables, nooks and crannies. It was the perfect place to go after a stressful job interview.
In the extensive time that I spent browsing there, I realized that there was something missing. Something I had not yet thought of yet all of sudden felt very acutely. I miss the smell of books. The musty aromas of old novels have always hinted of past people, places, and untold stories; the possibilities of getting lost in a book for me are intrinsically tied to a scent. A combination of sharp paper, clean ink, clouded leather and mildewed pages – an odor so easily imagined yet now quite unobtainable. I felt strangely dissociated in such a richly supplied arena of past and present, leather binding and rippled paperback, without that familiar scent. It was as if a part of the experience was missing; the striking odor of “bookstore” is one I had forgotten means so much to me.
The minor depression of the scentless bookstore didn’t stop me, of course, from buying more books than I will be able to read in the anywhere near future. When I emerged from the store my bag was noticeably heavier. It was warm outside, sunny and hinting of the immediacy of Spring. I walked to nearby Union Square and wandered through the spattering of farmers market stalls set up in the late afternoon breeze. When I saw a woman surrounded by small pots of herbs and flowers on the tables under her white tent, I knew what I needed to erase the odorless bookstore from my presently troubled musings. I bought myself a tiny rosemary plant, slightly off kilter and snaking up in an arch around the side of its plastic pot, small and musky green. I sat with it on my lap on the subway, heading over the bridge back towards Brooklyn. I rubbed its small leaves gently with my thumb and forefinger and sniffed, my nose touching the felty stem. Its deep, resounding herb scent crept deliciously up through the connections of my still functioning olfactory neurons.
The little rosemary plant is living on my kitchen table for the moment, situated in perfect view as I sip my morning coffee and read one of the million books I have piled up on my bedroom floor.