That New Book Smell


They say that smell plays a bigger part than we know in triggering memory. I believe it, because even now, decades later, the smell of brand new books takes me right back to elementary school, and the much-anticipated, twice yearly ritual of shopping at the Scholastic Book Fair. It was easily the highlight of my year.

I remember the flyer would be sent home to parents the week before the fair. I always took mine and folded it carefully into my pocket for safekeeping, then reverently presented it to my mother when I stepped off the bus after school, always asking the same question: “How much can I spend?”

Throughout the week of the book fair, classes were scheduled one at a time to come and shop. Every year, I hoped for a spot on Monday; any later and I became nearly apoplectic worrying that all the best books would be gone before I got there. The morning of book fair day, homework and lunch were all but forgotten in the rush to make sure I had my wish list checked off and the precious green bills my parents gave me safety-pinned inside my pocket for security.

After interminable suffering through math facts and social studies reports, at last it would be our turn. We’d file more-or-less silently through the hallways to the library and enter through the doors into a whole new world, where the usual dusty and overloaded shelves had been hidden, supplanted by colorful racks full of literary eye-candy. There was always a theme, and over the years the library was transformed into everything from an undersea paradise to an old Western town, adding to the sense of excitement and wonder.

The surroundings didn’t matter as much as the reading material, though, and before long I would be engrossed in reading book jackets and first chapters, carefully making selections based on my wish list, putting some books back and picking up new ones, all along making mental calculations based on the amount of money I had to spend. Often, there was just enough left over after buying books to pick up one of the impulse items at the cash register, like a fuzzy-haired pen or a fluorescent magnifying glass. It always took me until the last minute to shop, and inevitably, I’d walk out with my arms full of treasures and a small twinge of sadness for all the books I’d had to leave behind.

Only slightly less anticipated than book fair day was the more frequent ritual of Troll book orders. Every month or two, the teacher would pass around the newest Troll book order form, a newsprint flyer of pure wordy delight. For a few minutes, everyone would be busy optimistically marking their desired selections before taking it home to show to Mom and Dad, the founts of all cash. I was blessed. Rarely did a book order go by without my getting at least a couple of new books from it. Unlike the book fair, which offered instant gratification, Troll book orders seemed to take for-e-ver. Weeks would pass, and then, finally, after I had cycled through anticipation, expectation, impatience, and frustration, when I’d nearly forgotten about the order altogether, it would arrive in a beautiful brown cardboard box with “Troll” stamped in big letters on the side. A good day instantly became a great one.

Today, while Katie was at school, Caleb and I visited the Scholastic Book Fair at Coeur d’Alene Christian School. It smelled like childhood, and the sight of my son running excitedly from rack to rack sent a warm little dart of feeling straight through me. We looked at books about bugs, books about art, books based on favorite TV characters. We examined make-your-own-model kits and craft instruction manuals. We entered a contest by guessing how many fruit candies were in the glass jar: I guessed 555; Caleb guessed five. I imagine the answer is somewhere in between. I let him take as long as he wanted making his selection, while I did some shopping of my own. In the end, we added to our family library, supported a school we love, and left the book fair satisfied that a tradition has been passed on and yet another thread of shared memory had been tied between our generations. Not bad for a morning’s work.

There’s just something about new books, isn’t there?


17 responses »

  1. That’s so awesome! I JUST took my kids to shop at OUR Scholastic book fair today! No joke! Ah, and the book orders. I remember those, too. Turns out they’re a royal pain in the rear for teachers to co-ordinate, though. But hey, if it gets the kids excited about new books… 😀

  2. Wow, you just totally took me back and flooded me with memories. What a great way to start my day.

    And yes, there’s nothing like a new book…and I know the exact smell you write of.

  3. Funny-just took Jackson to his yesterday. The first thing he told the bus driver when he got on the bus was, “My parents are coming to the book fair with me today!”
    Ahh the pride! When we showed up at his school he almost cried with joy. Literally. He then made his rounds around the library introducing us to all the volunteers & subs & librarian. He was SO happy. And came away with the fuzzy haired troll topped pencil at the register too. Of course Nana had to read one of the purchases last night before bed. “Froggy Sleeps Over”.
    I like new books & their faces but I personally prefer OLD books & THAT smell they have. Some say it’s mold, I say it’s love.;)
    Good times.

  4. You captured this experience so well! I loved the Scholastic Book Fairs and Troll order forms. I would read every single book description, carefully checking off the ones I wanted. Thanks for reminding me of good times.

  5. Oh, I loved book fairs too! And I totally forgot about the Troll orders. So fun!

    I was just thinking about book fairs the other day. I remember once I bought this book called “How to Reach Your Favorite Stars.” It had famous people’s real names and birthdays and addresses, and it had tips on how to get them to open your letter from the 50 billion they get every day because, hello, they’re famous.

    Even though my mom wouldn’t let me watch 90210, I wrote Jennie Garth a letter because I thought she was just so pretty. I wanted to be like her. She never wrote me back. 😦

    I definitely remember those huge fuzzy coloring sheets, too. Ah, good times.

  6. There were no Scholastic Book Fairs where I grew up. We ordered Scholatic Books from a form and then waited– FOREVER (it seemed)– for the books to arrive.

    I like the idea of immediate book gratification. Probably why I spend too much time and money in B&N as an adult.

  7. Well, now that I see you’ve already been to the book fair and ours isn’t scheduled for months, I’ve got that nervous feeling that all the best books will be gone!!

    We have the fair AND the monthly order forms. I get a strange thrill when my children bring home the order forms and they can scarcely get a glimpse of them until I’ve thoroughly reviewed each and every book!

  8. Oh there is. I’ve been trying to be so good and not buy new books but it is SO HARD!! I loved book orders, too but I don’t remember book fairs (although I know of them now, with my son!) I haven’t been able to enjoy the book orders with my son because he reads so far ahead of his age that the book order books are just way too easy for him (meaning it’d be $20 spent for 4 minutes of reading!) But oh, just watch us go in a Barnes and Nobels!!

  9. I loved the book fairs!! But, our order forms came from Weekly Reader!! I’ll never forget taking my order form home to see how much Mom would let me buy. She always let me get what I wanted because it was books, and she was an avid reader. I miss that elementary school library…

  10. My 2 youngest will have book fair next week at their school. I’m hoping that maybe I can squeeze out a little bit of money so that I can pick up a few things for Cmas & Bdays this year! That said, I LOVE Half-Price books!!! I’m planning a trip there for next payday – my oldest is into a certain series (can’t for the life of me remember the name right now) so I’m thinking that a few of the books he hasn’t yet read will make good birthday gifts (his is Dec. 4th).

    Thanks for bringing back memories 🙂 While I attended public school (only through 1st grade) I had the joy of getting to go browse until my teacher would yell that I was the last one there, and for pity’s sake, please hurry up! Ms. Peterson… 🙂

  11. man, jen, do you have to tell her everything you know? besides, she and paul won two prizes tonight (however i won one, also, and got to choose first and so went home with the jr. mints;0)

  12. Woohooo! I still can’t believe Kathy guessed 555 also. Apparently we both used the same obscure Pythagorean algorithm to come up with our answers. Who knew?

    You better cough up my half of the prize, blondie (and there better be some bananas left!) 😉

  13. 🙂 🙂 I can just picture Caleb, bright eyed and eager, running around all excited about the books…. and you just behind him, doing the exact same.

    Way too cute.

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