Bookdealers come across some rare delights in their efforts to find stock. I suppose that's true of dealers in secondhand anything, though I'm glad my days of doing NCT Nearly New sales, and finding baby clothes for sale with the baby sick still on them, are now past. (I used to run these, and we instituted a ruthlessly efficient quality control system to root out this wickedness...)
I also used to sort books for a local Cancer Research shop, and never ceased to be amazed by what people thought we could sell: colouring books already coloured in; books with half the pages missing; books which had obviously been in the bath; books which had spent a long time in a dusty attic, and my particular favourites, books which had spent some time in a damp garden shed. There is nothing like sorting through a box of slightly damp, mould ridden and reeking books, to cheer your day. Wait, yes there is. There was the box of books which contained a mummified mouse corpse.
And how do you describe these book gems? If I ever ran an estate agency (unlikely but I have done quite a bit in my nearly 50 years, and you never know) I would like my property descriptions to be along the Roy Brooks line. Famous in the 1960s for his honest, nay fearless descriptions of what he was trying to sell - he would never have described the utterly bijou broom cupboard sold near Harrods as an opportunity - I feel that he could still teach the book world a thing or two.
Lacking properties to describe, though I am open to offers from any estate agency willing to give me a go, I expend my efforts on books. I don't usually sell books which smell bad, but after dithering with the following book for sometime, I decided to give it a go. If no one buys it, which is, I suppose, given the write-up, more likely than not, I think I will do an Unlucky Dip. I haven't yet decided whether to do this on an opt-in or opt-out basis, but am open to persuasion either way.
Here is the book in question: it's Patience McElwee's Dark Horse:
"Reading copy only and not for the faint hearted even then; ex library and still reeks of smoke despite lengthy exposure to odour removing granules. The dustjacket is laminated to the boards; is faded to the spine, and chipped. The fep has been removed, and the front hinge mended. The pages are reasonably clean. Excellent read by a now sadly under rated author, in which the orphan Hardcastles are caught between their grandmother's almighty snobbery and wish to outdo her "friend", and the casual shenanigans of the grand but incredibly scruffy O'Briens. I can supply a clothes peg with the book should you wish."
So, what do you do if you, all unwary, buy a book which turns out to reek of smoke/cooking fat/mould? There are things you can try, besides the odour removing granules I occasionally use, with occasional success.
Most importantly, if a book has that mouldy reek, it needs a period of at least a month in the freezer to kill the mould spores. If left to its own devices, the mould can infect your other books. When the book emerges from the freezer, it will be delightfully odour free for around 5 minutes. Once it starts to approach room temperature, the mouldy stench will re-emerge. So, now that you have a (you hope) non infectious, but still smelly book, what can you do?
You can try the heat treatment; at least if you live somewhere consistently sunny. I have read a bookseller's lyrical description of putting a book out in the sun for the whole day, turning a few pages at a time to cook. And then repeating that, day after day. If I add that the seller lived in America (and I assume somewhere like California) you will see why that might be a legitimate choice. Doing that in the joy that is the English summer would only lead to damp ruin.
Fuller's Earth (obtainable from a pet shop near you) is supposed to work. Wrap the book in paper and then bury it in a bag of Fuller's Earth. This is supposed to absorb the smell, and does as long as the book is not too bad to start with.
I have also heard that putting the book into a sealed plastic bag with one of those freshener things you put in with the tumble drying is supposed to work. I've never tried it, as I can't bear the smell of the freshener things, and the thought of that, not quite overlaying the mould reek, turns my stomach.
My own take on this is that if a book smells really bad, it will go on doing so, no matter what you do. If a book is, on a scale of 1-5, 1 or 2, then it's worth trying remedies.
If you have any patent remedies, particularly for anything you've tried on the upper end of the scale, please add to the comments.
Update: Dark Horse is now sold. It's the only book I have sold out of the current crop of new stock, so maybe that's telling me something.