I recently ordered a book on Amazon. (To be honest, I’m constantly ordering books on Amazon, but this story is about one book in particular.)
You see, every once in a while, I’ll find a used hardcover being sold at a lower price than the paperback, and as much as I love Amazon Prime, I’m always willing to wait a few extra days for a deal on an old-school hardcover edition.
Naturally, I forgot about it, so it was a happy surprise when it arrived a little over a week later in one of those “we’re not Amazon, but we’ll still get it to you” padded yellow envelopes.
As as I ripped it open, I was smacked in the face with the thick stink of old smoke. It was slightly sweet, most certainly tobacco, but different from the stale funk of dead cigarettes.
In those first few moments, the fumes were so strong that I could barely turn the pages without it making my eyes burn. Still, I didn’t mind. Something about it was oddly comforting. I could easily imagine some old smoker’s study where this book sat quietly on a shelf being slowly infused for decades.
The bookseller had claimed the condition of the book to be “Like New,” and I suppose technically it was. Aside from the smell, the only indication that the book had ever been opened was an embossed seal on the title page that read “From the library of” followed by the previous owner’s name, middle initial included.
Of course, when I saw the seal, I immediately had to know more. The book had shipped from Michigan, and with the man’s full name, it was less than a minute before I was staring at his obituary from a small local newspaper.
He had died over the holidays in his sleep, peacefully, as they say, at an age when the loss is felt by friends and family, but it’s not quite a tragedy. He was survived by his wife, two daughters, and enough grandchildren for me to know that he had lived a full if not happy life.
The obituary had a link to a remembrance guestbook, and naturally I clicked through. There amidst all the condolences and digital memorabilia was an old photograph of the man, not quite posed, but certainly aware of the camera, and I could see through my computer screen into his home, into his life, and into his eyes.
He had a kind face, but it was clear he was a little uncomfortable being photographed. Either that, or whoever took the picture made him hold his smile a second too long. He seemed equal parts blue collar working man and college professor, but then again, maybe that’s just the way people dressed in a small town with cold weather in what looked to be the late 1980s.
He was wearing a zippered cardigan sweater, thick knit and hideous, the kind that would make a vintage store hipster go weak in the knees. His shirt underneath was unremarkable except for the fact that the collar was pinched closed with a chunky bolo tie. He wore big ugly wire frame glasses, unforgivable even by 80’s standards, and his slacks must have been some kind of corduroy. The man had zero style, but he definitely had a look.
It didn’t take me an extra second to notice that in his hand he was cupping a classic wooden pipe. I wasn’t expecting it, but it hit me hard. When I saw the pipe in that photograph, I suddenly became very emotional. My eyes were already glassy from the fumes wafting off the book, so it was easy to let go with some genuine tears.
For a brief moment, I sat there crying. I was holding this beautiful, stinking old book that had very recently belonged to this man, flipping though its pages, my senses overwhelmed with this powerful remnant of his presence. It was like being visited by someone’s ghost, and I wept for a complete stranger who had smoked a pipe and died in his sleep and had by random chance bequeathed me this possession from his personal library.
Over the next few days, every time I picked up the book to read it, I was reminded of him. Then gradually, the smell of pipe smoke began to fade. By the time I finished reading it, the tobacco had mellowed into a top note of that pleasant but generic old book smell.
I finished it last week, and the book has taken up residence on my bedroom shelf. No doubt that’s where it will stay, slowly absorbing a whole new host of chemicals and perfumes.
Today for some reason, I wanted to be reminded of that old man and his pipe. I had to crack open the book’s spine, put my nose directly into the pages, and inhale deeply like some titillated bibliophile.
The smell of tobacco was still there, but barely noticeable. I was lucky to catch the slightest trace. It won’t be much longer until that scent is gone forever.
It’s my book now, almost completely.