What Does a 280 Year-Old Book Smell Like?

One of my
great passions is antiquing. I enjoy finding new shops and poking around forgotten treasures in search of that one thing that is actually worth something, and genuinely "antique" (100+ yrs old). 

Last Sunday I was at a massive indoor market in Bridgeport, and happened across a bookseller's stall, way in the back. It was manned by a middle-aged British woman but stocked by a guy who was likely enjoying his weekend on a yacht somewhere. I scanned the shelves quickly, my eyes programmed to find one thing: calfskin binding. They had a hit in under a minute, but it proved to be a nineteenth-century book, which is a big thumbs-down for me. Nineteenth century books, though real antiques, aren't old enough. I kept scanning, scanning, and ten seconds later, hit number two. This one was entirely calfskin, not just a partial with bare boards like its Victorian neighbor, and I knew as soon as I pulled it that I'd hit the jackpot. The Brit didn't know how to read Roman numerals (a little weird), and when she called the owner, he didn't know what she was talking about, and just threw a generic $100 price tag on it. Sold!

The book is an original Dublin edition of Jonathan Swift's letters to the people of Ireland, compiled by George Faulkner in 1742 (several letters in the book are separately dated as having been published a year earlier.) It contains his famous protest against William Wood's copper half-pence, penned under the pseudonym, M.B. Drapier. Faulkner was a friend of Swift's, and had several editions of his letters published over the course of the eighteenth century, but few are as ornate as mine, which is full of intricate wood cuts of bucolic scenes gracing the chapter pages. Although the title is worn off the spine, the condition of the binding and pages is otherwise flawless. Holding the book, it almost feels like it's brand new, which is bizarre, given its age. The only things suggestive of antiquity are the shape of its spine and the light scuffing of its leather. Someone told me it might have been recently rebound, but its front cover has a library stamp bearing the name and family crest of Jonathan Lovett, Esq., of Liscombe Park, Buckinghamshire. It was in his collection, and still bears his crest -- and he died in 1770!

Aside from its condition, the thing I love most about the book is its smell. Its calfskin cover is gamey and a little sweet, its note of barnyard mixed with something like dry leather, and its laid-paper pages are so musty that I catch whiffs without even opening them. Part them ever so slightly and rest your nose in the valley, and it's just heavenly old paper and woodblock ink, an aroma that I doubt could be replicated in a lab. The unique smell of an eighteenth century book is one that predates the Industrial Revolution, and conjures images of men in small shops with panel after panel of woodcuts, and with letters shuffling everywhere as they align text by hand. My 1792 edition of Hugh Blair's sermons, which was published in America (different spine and binding technique) looks its age, but smells equally good, save for the chemical leather glue the idiot that sold it to me used in a rushed patch-up job. These books smell of the sands of time, and it takes a seasoned nose to appreciate that. To many folks they probably just smell of mold.

My aspiration is to find a seventeenth or sixteenth century book for a reasonable price. Once you pass the 300 year point, it gets significantly harder to find quality. Most of the books that predate 1701 are in rough shape, with loose pages, loose and detached cover boards, and god knows what going on in their spines. Ebay is a surprisingly good place to look, with a few obvious counterfeits here and there, but also a significant number of real articles in varying states of decay. Schilb Antiquarian is another (much pricier) place to browse. If and when I get lucky, I'll keep you all informed.


Nicole Miller for Men (Nicole Miller)

There are a few versions of this fragrance floating around out there. That's the bad news. The good news is that people generally feel the same way about all of them. The funny news is that nobody feels any iteration of Nicole Miller for Men is any great shakes. 

My bottle is a four-ouncer I grabbed at Burlington for ten dollars, and at that price I don't expect much. Released in 1994, NMfM has been through at least five formulas, from the original (presumably under Miller's brand), to Riviera Concepts, to Parlux, to Luxury Brands, to the bottle I have by Sheralven Enterprises, distributed by Kobra International. Naturally everyone calls Sheralven's version junk, which would mean something if you ignore the reviews of the last thirteen years.

People have been complaining about this one as far back as 2009, claiming its longevity stinks and its notes collapse into a cheap blur. I think going back that far takes you to the Parlux formula, and complicating matters further, it was manufactured in both the USA and Canada. The USA version gets lambasted, while the Canadian stuff is praised. This all falls in line with expectations of how old (and relatively outdated) "vintage" masculines should be discussed in the wider fragcomm. 

Anyway, my bottle is brand new, and how does it smell? It's surprisingly good. I get a sharp burst of honeyed red apple in the top note, which quickly mellows into a highly-blended woody-amber, through which are bits of dry lavender and wood notes, vaguely similar to sandalwood and very stale pine. There's a hint of sweetness, which I guess is the vanilla note, but I get the familiar hay-like buzz of coumarin in there as well. 

It smells like a fruity "fougeriental," graced with a deceptively simple structure: a lucid apple note on top, a basic and very dry woody-amber with a subtle lavender anchor, and a musky/woody foundation. I get whiffs of a pleasant, woody-sweet base a couple hours after application, so I'm happy. It reminds me most of Cigarillo by Remy Latour, although that one is richer and noticeably better. Still, I've encountered pricier frags that are less agreeable than this.  

Nicole Miller's signature masculine was released at a time when trends for the men's market were shifting away from the eighties tradition of woody orientals, but it smells like a holdover from that era. Sniff it, and be instantly transported back to a decade when people still used rotary phones and lunched at Sbarro. 


Wildbloom Vert (Banana Republic)

Some "green" fragrances evoke another color, something like flamingo pink, or a cross between an equally flamboyant pink and chartreuse. Wildbloom Vert's packaging suggests the fragrance is a bitter-green wildflower affair, when in fact it's a very fruity shampoo floral with a couple of juicy, borderline gourmand notes, and a handful of soapy pink floral whatever-ness. Given this, you'd think I'd be pretty "meh" about it. Not so: I like it.

Wildbloom Vert is the second flanker of the original Wildbloom, and was released in 2012, a year after the debut. I haven't smelled the other Wildblooms, but assume they're all a variation on this pedestrian theme of artificial froot-flavor notes. This fragrance reminds me of Cabotine, almost as if that scent were updated, and is almost a pass, yet for some reason its crisp delicious red apple note and the whole rosy bushel of chemical nonsense under it wins me over. The sweetness of the apple, which is mated to a massive pear note, and with a bow of vaguely green sappy notes around them, just feels happy and approachable. It's by far the least impressive Banana Republic fragrance I've encountered, but it still hits the mark it aims for and smells comfortably familiar and forgettable.

That said, this is a feminine I'm not inclined to wear. If I want pink and grey floral tones, I can wear Peony & Peppercorn or Chelsea Flowers. Those are a bit more focused on the floral, and less so on the fruit. But consider this the perfect gift perfume, something so mainstream and attractive that few women would reject it, and most would probably enjoy it and seek out more bottles. There's plenty of room in the world for challenging frags, but likable fruity-florals like this one have their place, too.