NPR has a neat article here about the Vieuxtemps Guarneri, a 273-year-old violin that recently sold for $16 million dollars, and whose new owner has loaned it out for life to violinist Anne Akiko Meyers. During the interview Ms. Meyers said something very interesting about the instrument, too:
I think every violin has its own soul, and the soul has been imprinted by a previous performer. So I definitely feel the soul of Vieuxtemps on this violin.
I think in some ways used books are like this, and before anyone starts thinking I'm a touch-psychic let me explain. People leave more than ephemera in the books they read, and it's because paper tends to act like a sponge for odors, stains and traces of life. Anyone who has ever acquired a book previously owned by a smoker, for example, can tell you that it either reeks of tobacco odor or sheds bits of ash that were caught in the page folds (or both.) People who douse themselves with cologne or perfume also leave scent traces behind in books. Used cookbooks almost always carry cooking odors and food stains left behind while the previous owner was working in the kitchen. Pet lovers generally can't avoid depositing at least one hair from their furry friends in a book, and it's also not uncommon to find spots and dribbles caused by drinks or food the last owner consumed while reading.
Pay attention to your senses and you may find a used book will tell you exactly who read it last. My Mom has all of my grandmother's favorite books, and whenever I open any one of them I smell the transfer of the Camay soap she always used on her hands. Mom is currently imprinting all of her books with the Chantilly hand cream she uses, too. I imagine someday one of my descendants will open one of my old books and discover the scent of French lavender (I use it as an air freshener in my book room), a strand of hair from one of my pet pals, or perhaps even a bit of sparkling metallic quilting thread.
Not all odors are pleasant, of course. Personally I hate acquiring books that have water damage as they are usually mildew-stained, and the smell of any mold makes mt stomach turn. If you have a used book that reeks, you can detox the pages by using a couple of different methods with some common household items (eHow.com has an article here with some good ideas on how to remove musty smells.) If you have a particularly rare or expensive book it could be worth it to have it professionally detoxed by a rare book expert; they usually know how to do it without harming the book.
I have a couple of books that possess mysterious and fascinating scents that I love; my favorite smells of clove and peppermint (a combination I actually used as a description in one of the Darkyn books.) An herbal encyclopedia I picked up in a garage sale still retains the scent of earth and green things, as if the previous owner read it while working in a garden. One very ordinary paperback thriller I found must have been kept on a boat, because every time I open it I can smell the salt and sea water.
Have you ever detected an interesting scent or stain in a used book you've bought? Let us know in comments.