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?