This glass-fronted secretary is full of old books—cookbooks and books on household management and helpful hints. When I open the doors, the smell of old books—so different from the smell of a library—always makes me smile.

Instructions For Cookery, In Its Various Branches, By Miss Leslie is dated 1843. This is the 17th edition (!) “with improvements and supplementary receipts.” As far as I know, it is my oldest book. I say, “As far as I know” because not all old books are dated. For example, this 64-page relic was printed in Edinburgh, sometime before 1890.

Books of this sort are my first collection, and still the most numerous. In the beginning I bought books like High-Class Cookery Made Easy by Mrs. Hart for what was on the printed page: how things used to be done. I found the recipes fascinating: instructions to  “assemble the [cake] ingredients in the usual way”; lists of ingredients with no measurements. (Fanny Farmer [see below]first introduced standard measurements in 1896.)

When I open a book of great (by my amateur standards) age, I like to ponder what sorts of women might have owned and used it over the decades. This copy of Mrs. Crowen’s American Ladies’ System of Cookery cookbook is inscribed Mrs. Dr. S.  S. Fitch, May 18th, 1860. It reminds me of the German practice of addressing someone as Herr Doctor Professor So-and-so. Might she be of German background?

The books printed in the 1880s and more recently are much more likely to be in good condition. Then, as now, once one made a name for oneself, more book deals followed.  Miss Parloa’s Kitchen Companion and Miss Parloa’s New Cookbook and Marketing Guide are early examples of this.

Perhaps the best example is Fanny Merritt Farmer. She paid Little, Brown, and Company to publish her Boston Cooking School Cookbook in 1896.  My earliest copy is from 1904. By then, it had been copyrighted 1896, 1900, 1901, 1902, and 1903. The flyleaf of my copy says it is revised with an appendix of three hundred recipes, and an addenda of sixty recipes. (Note the modern spelling of recipe.) She is listed as the author of Chaffing-Dish Possibilities and Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent.

I have a copy of the latter, as well as What to Have for Dinner, copyrighted 1904, 1905, 1907,  and 1905, respectively.  The Fanny Farmer Cookbook is still popular today.

Sir Terry Pratchett

But It’s More Than Just Old Cookbooks For Me

Over the years, I’ve replaced numerous paperbacks with older hard-copy editions of favorite books. I like the worn covers and brittle, yellowed pages.

They remind me of reading books of fairy tales and the Ruth Fielding series from the early 20th Century at my grandmother’s house.  It turns out that I’m not alone. Scent carries powerful psychological meaning for people—and triggers memories that otherwise are not readily available.

Many people, perhaps most, like the smell of old books. Science tells us that as books decompose over time, they emit a smell from decaying volatile organic compounds, very similar to chocolate and coffee! This is one time I really don’t need to know why I like something, just that I do.

My most recently acquired old book, 1904, came along with my most recent obsession: Bird Neighbors!

Bottom line for writers: smell an old book and feel uplifted!

Loving Used Bookstores

loving used bookstores raven used books tote
I recently visited one of my favorite bookstores, the Raven, in Northampton, MA. I came away with three treasured books.

loving used bookstores dictionary contemporary slang tony thorne

You may know that I collect dictionaries. And yes, I have shelves of them. What makes this one worthy of acquisition is that it spans multiple English-speaking locales. For example, the noun gam is British for oral sex, but in Australia it is a sanitary pad or tampon. The noun crack in the US refers to the drug; in Ireland and Britain it means a good time but when preceded by “the” it means what’s going on the latest news, or current ambiance. It’s also a vulgarism for vagina in all English-speaking areas. (Lots of slang refers to sex acts and genitalia.)

As an adjective, it’s British for top-notch or first-rate. As a transitive verb, it means to share or split.

(N. B., the meaning of slang often depends on context.)

loving used bookstores little brown book anecdotes clifton fadiman

My second find is a compilation of anecdotes and their attributions. More accurately, it’s a list of sources and related stories. For example, under Mark Twain there are 23 entries, such as “In a world without women,” Twain was once asked, “what would men become?” He replied, “Scarce, sir. Mighty scarce.”

The backmatter includes a source list, bibliography, index of names, and–perhaps most valuable to writers– a subject index.

loving used bookstores giant book insults louis a safian

Last but not least, I bought a book of insults. They are so often creative and funny. “He smokes the kind of cigars that leave you smellbound.” The contents are organized by subject.

One reason to love used books: they’re inexpensive. I got all three of these for $20.03, including taxes. The best prices are usually at library book sales or at yard/tag/garage sales.

second story books washington dc loving used bookstores
[Source: Tumblr]
But secondhand bookstores have the advantages of permanence and variety. I started my collection of slang dictionaries at Second Story Books in Washington, DC.

I browse used bookstores more broadly than others. When I entered the Raven, I wasn’t looking for the books I bought!

tattered cover denver loving used bookstores
[Source: The Tattered Cover]

The Tattered Cover is another favorite of mine, though it is technically a hybrid: it sells both new and used books.

BOTTOM LINE: Check out used bookstores. You might surprise yourself!

Interested in learning more about writing? Join me at Agile Writers for my class on Write Your Life: Memoir and Memoir-Based Fiction. For more information, visit the Agile Writers website.

Vivian Lawry Agile Writers