A Word from Jim

Continue to read The Smell Collector by David Wilson-Burns

On some level, we all do it.  Olfactory memory is believed to be the most powerful memory of all.   I remember the day when I realized how valuable and unique smells are.  In the mid-summer of 1977, I was a very young child of four, and my dear mother had taken me with her to the post office.  There were two worlds happening in this post office.  One at a height above the counter and one at a height below the counter.  My world was below the counter.   In my world, there was a beautiful little girl.  Her hair was shiny and brown and was drawn up with a red bow.  She wore a pretty polka dotted dress.  On her feet, were ruffly socks and patent leather shoes.  She did not say anything to me.  I did not say anything to her.  After all, I would be gone soon.  My family was moving to a different state.  Mother was filling out a change of address form.   A few days after we arrived at our new house, mother took me once again to the post office.  And here, I collected my first smell.  When I entered the office, the smell  immediately triggered the memory of the girl.  This post office smelled exactly like the other one.  In that moment, In my own five-year-old way, I longed for that girl.  It was the first of many experiences with unrequited love.

Smell collecting is unique.  It’s not like stamp or coin collecting.  You can’t keep a smell except in your memory.  However, it is far more rewarding then any silly stamps or baseball cards.  It is like having a time machine.  A smell can take you to another place and time.  It takes you to a very intimate moment in your life.  Smell is a very intimate experience.

After thirty-one years of collecting smells, I’ve built a system that works for  me.  Smell Collecting requires a combination of documentation, travel, and chemistry.  When you’ve found a smell that you want to collect, you begin by documenting the experience.  What did you feel?  Where was it?  What were the circumstances?   What was the time and date? And so on.  Next you must undergo the more challenging task of discovering what is creating the smell.  Sometimes it’s simple.  A ballgame is popcorn, beer, cut grass, and roasted peanuts.  It used to include tobacco smoke, and sometimes includes a hint of human urine.  Others are not as simple.  It requires investigation.  For the post office, I later inquired about the cleaning agents.  I researched the composition of the counter and the floors.  I sniffed and studied the whole lobby.  Other strong contributing smells included stamp glue, paper, scotch tape, packing tape, dust, and the metal that comprises the post office boxes.  All of this must be carefully documented.

And finally, if you want to revisit one of your smells, you have two choices.  One, you can go to the place where you collected the smell.  I make as many as 20 little trips a week to browse my collection.  Or, two, you can attempt to construct the smell.  This is where chemistry comes into play.  Some smells  are not bound to a place.    They exist in a single moment in time.  A woman’s perfume, a whiff of cigarette smoke, a little bit of diesel fume, and some spearmint gum might come close to someone’s first kiss, for example.  Of course, it’s almost impossible to recreate a first kiss because of the human element.  I’ve tried samples of human saliva and sweat.  I’ve tried various hair products and toothpastes; anything, really, that I imagine might go into a first kiss.  Perhaps she’ll be wearing Secret Deodorant For Women.  I fancy, that she’ll be wearing some sophisticated perfume from the Channel line.  Mother always says that my first kiss will make me light-headed.  I wonder if it has anything to do with the smell?

My smells are my life really.  Smells and Mother.  I don’t know what I would do without them.  Smells capture all those special moments.  Mother’s goodnight kisses, for example:  Maybelline lipstick, stale coffee, Channel #5, and Finesse Moisturizing Shampoo.   I think it’s a great hobby.  More of a way of life really.

Continue to read The Smell Collector by David Wilson-Burns