Monday, November 12, 2007

The Scent of a Novel

I've recently begun reading a book called "The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield. I'm only a couple of chapters into it, but so far, the story has triggered a cherished childhood memory.

The setting is that of a second hand book store - a family business run by a biographer and her father. The character tells of her passion for books, leaving her readers with the understanding that reading is almost as necessary to her emotional survival as breathing is to her physical existence. She describes "the smell of old books, so sharp, so dry you can taste it."

When I was a kid, my Dad owned a variety shop for about twelve years. It was on a popular corner in Montreal and he drew in regular crowds from the busy bus stops and transfer point outside, as well as from neighbouring homes. He had a near-steady flow of loyal customers who made a point of dropping by whether they needed to purchase something or not. Often they just wandered in to chat and have a laugh, as my father shared his latest joke.

My parents' devotion to their customers was strong, and they occasionally attended their weddings, celebrated births and birthdays and mourned their deaths. That loyalty was mutual. When my father passed away more than a decade after selling his store, our family was deeply touched by the number of past customers that came to his funeral.

It was a true "Mom and Pop" shop, and my parents worked long hours, seven days a week. Dad opened the store before 7 a.m. so that workday commuters could run in to buy their newspaper and chat with him before continuing their journey when the next bus arrived. Mom took his place in the afternoon when he would come home for lunch and a nap. He locked up for the night at 11 p.m. to come home, eat and settle in to watch The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In later years, my sister and I would each find ourselves helping out by working behind the cash and stocking shelves. Early on, Dad also hired Pat to work the cash during his off hours and rare days off. She too, became a close family friend, and my sister kept in touch with her until she recently passed away.

During the school year, if Mom was at the store in the afternoon, as she often was, I'd head over there directly after school instead of going home. First I'd have to do my homework in the tiny storeroom at the back, and possibly indulge in take-out barbecue chicken or a burger from one of the nearby restaurants. Then the store shelves were mine to explore and enjoy.

Looking around, there was much to see and do. The shelves were stocked with colourful stuffed animals, bubbles and Slinkys. Puffy pink and red Valentine's and glittery Christmas greetings would attract the eye, as displays changed for each upcoming holiday. Sometimes I'd grab a bag of Humpty Dumpty barbecue chips for a snack, and wash it down with an icy cold Nesbitt's* orange soda. The soft drink companies often held contests in which you were required to check under the caps for winnings. My sister and I would pull out the tray which collected the colourful, sticky caps, and go through them in search of prizes of "free bottles" or of treasures worth "10¢!!!" hidden behind the cork backings.

I loved being there when the daily orders would come in. Opened boxes would reveal the wonderful scents of chocolate, gum and other sweets required to replenish the two displays of candy bars and penny candy. Twice a week, comic and magazine orders would come in, and Dad would give me the task of removing the older copies from the stands and replacing them with the new editions. I'd often get lost between the covers of their shiny, new pages. I'd read anything. In younger years my tastes ranged from Casper and Richie Rich to Millie the Model, Archie and romance comics and Children's Digest. Later, I turned my attention to teen magazines like Seventeen and Tiger Beat, satire such as Mad and Cracked, and eventually Cosmopolitan and other fashion publications. I even bought the first editions of Playgirl and Viva, partly because the banners across the top right corners said they'd be valuable someday, but mostly because the guys inside were cute - and naked.

And then there were the pocket books.
Our store had a large wall-rack which was loaded with the latest novels, from ceiling to floor. They were replenished semi-frequently and it never mattered if I didn't get around to reading one, or several titles that I had mentally set aside, because the book companies never wanted the unsold books back in their possession. They only needed the covers for their inventory, and to ensure that unsold, credited merchandise would not be offered for sale. Of course this meant that our home was loaded up with boxes upon boxes of books, hand-selected from the store's rejects. To this day, those books often come to mind when I open a new paperback novel.

Though not nearly as intense as the scent from old, hard-covered books mentioned in the above author's quote, there is still a certain smell to the ink in pocket books. When I open a new or used book for the first time, the scent that wafts up to my nose brings me back to the days of my father's store, and all its treasures that laid within. I can almost feel how my right hand rested upon a shiny back cover as my left hand touched the dry, rough paper of the title page beneath it.

I'm guessing I'll continue to enjoy The Thirteenth Tale. Both its scent and its verbal imagery have already succeeded in bringing me to a place and time when days were carefree, and my imagination soared. And that's exactly what a good story is meant to do.

Here's my Dad, where he stood proudly for many years, doing what he loved best - schmoozing with his customers, telling jokes, listening to life stories and making life-long friends. A bit of online sleuthing tells me that this photo was taken in April of 1970, which corresponds with the date of the TV Guide seen in the bottom right-hand corner.


the Bag Lady said...

Hilary, what a terrific post!! Your dad looks like he was a great guy. Thanks for sharing from your storehouse of wonderful memories.

Tink said...

What an amazing post! You've proven that memories, even those that aren't ours, are truly scensory.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful tribute to your parents and their business. So descriptive! I've read "The Thirteenth Tale" myself and thought it a worthy book.

Reb said...

Sounds like a great book. Glad it brought back some wonderful memories for you and thanks for sharing them.

Hilary said...

Bag Lady,

Thanks, he absolutely was. :)


Thanks so much for your kind words. :)


Thank you. :) I'm continuing to enjoy the book as well. Thanks for visiting, and please come back soon.


It's pretty good so far. Just ask Wordgirl. Thanks. :)

Anonymous said...

I loved your memoir. It reminded me of the variety store that I went to as a child. Every week we checked to see if the latest Nancy Drew mystery had come in. I think that they cost $.35. And they had a great selection of yoyos-big in the early 50's, even for girls. And paper doll books.

awannabe said...

Oh my gosh... I think it would have been paradise to grow up around books and magazines. I dream of owning a mansion with a library in it someday!

That job interview I had (they haven't called back) was for Better World Books which sells used books.

Frank Baron said...

I'm jealous! Your dad's store was way more interesting than my dad's (furniture).

But then again - I had an uncle who had a fishing & hunting shop so maybe we're even. ;)

Great post. :)

Hilary said...


Paper dolls! I used to love those.. and yo-yos and Nancy Drew... Sis is that you? ;)

Thanks for stopping by Anon.. please come back soon.


I hope that you hear from them soon. A mansion with a library.. dream big!


Thanks. You keep your fishing flashbacks and I'll stick to my magazine memories. We'll both be happy! ;)

Stace said...

All I could say has been said already. So I'll just say "see above comments"!

Hilary said...

Thanks Stace. :)

Anonymous said...

OK, time to dry my eyes, that was so touching and brought back so many wonderful memories and scents.
Two tear-jerking days in a row, yesterday laying the wreath for Dad at the cenotaph, and today your memoires. I'm sending Pat a copy of your blog today, she's now 82 and still talks of Mom & Dad with love and warmth. Thanks, Hil

Hilary said...

Thanks Andi :)

Please give her my best.. and my email address. I wonder if she remembers "last touch!"

Dawn said...

What a FANTASTIC post! A beautiful essay!

LOVE this line in the book you're reading: "the smell of old books, so sharp, so dry you can taste it."

I know exactly what she is talking about, the second I read it, I was like, "Yes! Yes, I know that smell!"

I have to read that book now. (And continue visiting your blog regularly. :) )

Hilary said...

Thanks, Dawn :)

I was over at your blog when your comment alert came in here.

Thank you so much for your kind words and I sure do hope you'll be back. Let me know if you do read The Thirteenth Tale, and how you like it.

Anonymous said...

The piece about the store and your father was great. Seeing that photo of him sure did bring back a rush of memories. Maybe one day you can relate the story of your father, Jack and the Statue of David.

Hilary said...


Maybe one day I will - if I can remember exactly how it went. Andi and I were just talking about that yesterday along with so many other stories from back in the day. Thanks for stopping by. :)

Anonymous said...

It sounds as though you had a magical childhood. Great post...

Hilary said...

Thanks kindly, Susan. :)

BOSSY said...

Ahhhhhhhh. What an amazing childhood fantasy. Lucky you.

Crabby McSlacker said...

Wow, that was really a great post. I could see and feel and smell everything, it was so vivid.

And I really enjoyed reading the Thirteenth Tale too!

Hilary said...

Bossy, thanks for stopping by. :)

Thanks muchly, Crabby. I'm taking my sweet time getting around to finishing it, but yes, it's a good book.

Cath said...

Great memories Hilary. He would be proud of you today, from what I have seen of you.

Hilary said...

Thanks very much, Cath. What a sweet thing to say. :)

Anonymous said...

Hilary -- This story about and picture of your dad touches my heart. What a fun way to grow up!

Hilary said...

Thanks, Addhumorandfaith. It was indeed a fun time. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. :)