by Bern Marcowitz and Margot Rosenberg
Owners of the Dog Lovers Bookshop
Authors of The Care and Feeding of Books Old and New: A Simple Repair Manual for Book Lovers

Bern Marcowitz

Bern Marcowitz.

"That book stinks!" can be both a subjective evaluation of content, or an objective report on a physical condition. For one of the common book ills is good old BO: book odor that can be so offensive it renders a volume virtually unsalable and unreadable. It's not something most people talk about, and many may not even consider the olfactory among the book senses. But ask yourself this: Did I set that old novel aside because the story bored me, or was I repelled, unknowingly, by a pervasive odor that made the experience of reading unpleasant?

Of course it is possible to read a book that smells bad. Subconsciously, however, you may retreat from the book in your hands, wanting it as far from your nose as you can get it, and who's to say you're not at the same time withdrawing from some fascinating characters and a crackerjack plot?

Our characters this time around, then, are those that can make bad book scents.

There is the serious problem of mold, which beyond its effect on books can make you sick and your living or work space uninhabitable. If mold or mildew extends beyond individual books, which should be isolated, you will probably need professional help with removal and rehabilitation.

So we'd like to concentrate on what's easy to control: the merely malodorous.

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Most of the agents that contribute to book odor are inescapable. But the effects of pungent cooking, tobacco, poor air circulation, and any combo of dust, chemicals, and the aging and deterioration of books themselves can be controlled.

Document cleaning padFirst, books must be kept clean. A simple dusting is essential. Dust all your books routinely - not because they smell, but because dusting removes that which can cause odor. Wipe with a clean, lint-free rag or a professional product such as the Document Cleaning Pad, and work in one direction only (no rubbing back and forth, please!). Pay special attention to the book's edges and any embossed or otherwise uneven areas, which are prime depositories for fine particles that don't benefit your books, or you and your environment.

Removing the topsoil is the first line of defense. For any book that offends, however, a visit to what we call "The Stinky Box" is recommended. We wrote on this topic extensively in The Care and Feeding of Books Old and New (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2002), and offer here a quick course.

Use a clean, dry carton that closes securely, one that has never carried food or anything moist. The carton (some liquor cartons are ideal) should be big enough to let books stand upright and open, with support. To the carton of stinky books, add a fully opened solid air freshener, taking care that the freshener's solid does not touch any book parts. Close the box, covering it with something impervious if the freshener's smell is escaping and you don't much care for it as a constant, and wait patiently. Check every day or so, removing books, letting them air out, and then subjecting them to the smell test: your nose deep in the gutter. Return books for continued treatment until their smell is acceptable to you.

Instead of air fresheners, you can use that old standby, baking soda (an open container thereof, but not one that has ever done duty in your refrigerator). Among the other products that can help books smell better are kitty litter and a few drops of essential oils of citronella and eucalyptus on a cotton ball.

Bio-Lam Antimicrobial LaminateOnce books are destunk and ready to settle into their clean, level shelves, where they will be shielded from direct sunlight, it's time to treat the air that circulates around them. The cooler the temperature the better; low humidity is also desirable. Try not to shelve books against a wall or other hard surface; let them be bathed in air. But the air you breathe without complaint may give books much to complain of, and start the stink cycle all over again. Investigate the many commercial products that dehumidify and cleanse the air: Brodart and other book product companies carry them. Where ventilation is poor, books are many and old and precious, or you are concerned about your overall environment, consider investing in a vacuum cleaning system that uses a HEPA filter. This marvel also protects against the spores that cause mold.

Why should a book smell good? For the same reason that an attractive table setting and thoughtful arrangement of food adds to the pleasures of a meal. The experience is enhanced, and so is the recollection of it. What does the aroma of your favorite dish do for you? Give the books you love the same opportunity to endure and please.

To purchase the book care products mentioned in this article, please visit While you're there, you can download free helpful how-to's including the "Guide to Book Care and Repair" and "A Simple Guide to Selecting a Book Jacket."


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