Just a few years ago if you happened to be driving in downtown Durham on a muggy summer night with the windows down and catch the red light at the right cycle, you would be overwhelmed with the smell of books coming from The Book Exchange. This enormous bookstore sold remaindered books, publisher cast-offs much sadder than your ordinary used-book store, whose tomes at least had a chance at happiness and blew it. No, these books were orphaned from the beginning - these books of outdated Latin, cookbooks, archaic law. Organized by publisher rather than author, most people never got the hang of this retail labyrinth, yet the Book Exchange was in business for decades. Until last February, that is, when it closed for good, taking with it millions and millions of pages, each sheet of paper with its own olfactory combination of ink and mildew and dust that would come together with its peers and spread into the street like a revolutionary army of collective memory.
It's not the memory of that store I'm celebrating here. Or mourning, to be more exact. Nor is it the smell of books which is almost certainly going to disappear in the fairly near future. But those books represented something, something I already miss dearly, yet still cling to in an almost self-destructive passion. To me, the smell of those books was the smell of the twentieth century - after all, what was in all those pages? - and I will soon no longer have any hope of recovering it.
The twentieth century didn't begin on the day I was born in 1971, nor did my memory of it. Memory is so much trickier than that. Early on, I was exposed to not just my own childhood but that of my parents also. Grandparents' houses filled with roasts and cakes that mirrored the exact smell of 1959, and so I knew what 1959 smelled like as much as I knew what 1979 smelled like. Wooden barns filled with the lingering odor of cured tobacco leaves. Pure 1930's. The wet metal smell from inside my Army surplus canteen - was that Korea or World War 2? The rubber smell of a squeaky Donald Duck toy. What year am I in exactly? I could never be sure. My clothes were hand-me-downs, my books were used, even my toys were often passed down a generation. My grandfather's country store where we played as kids was filled with old soda bottles and a trove of even older ones could be found in the woods just off of his motor oil-scented parking lot. How old was that oil smell? My grandmother served me Coca Cola in a tiny yellow plastic cup that had a smell all its own. Tin can filled with black dirt and worms for fishing. How old was that can? Did my uncles use it when they were kids? The rusty, sooty feel and smell of the railroad tracks at night when I was older- impossible to pinpoint. Bus depots. Record stores. Pamphlets. Mimeograph. Newspaper crosswords and 40 cent coffee at Friar's Cellar in Greensboro. Curry chicken salad at the Skylight Exchange in Chapel Hill. Boxes of comic books, thumbing through them with soda sticky hands, and their paper cracked and their ads impossibly archaic even by the time I got to them. Keep On Truckin'? I had no idea what that meant but every comic I owned had an ad for jean patches with that cryptic remark. Mr. Natural. Keep On Truckin'.
That's just what happened. We all kept on truckin'. It's 2010 now and the twentieth century is all but gone and is replaced with sights and sounds and smells that mean nothing to me. I am a fish out of water. The topic was memory jogged by smell, but there is barely any smell left that can jog my memory to where it wants to go. Some postulate that my beloved twentieth century was blown away by the foul odors that swept across New York City on September 11, 2001, but I don't feel that's true. History is not changed in that broad of stroke. But I am amazed at how fast it has happened, how fast the memories I long for are disappearing.
I have tried to love this new century, to embrace it and accept and learn to live in it, but I just can't seem to do it. My heart is too spiteful. And it's not that I hate progress and change - I don't believe that time is linear in that fashion - but because I do so still love the twentieth century. I love it like a parent and in many ways it is my parent. It gave birth to me.
And now it is dead and gone. So is the old Book Exchange, my grandfather's store, Friar's Cellar, The Skylight Exchange, etc.