Coffee for Musty Old Books?

Hang on to your Kindles, girls.

I’m feeling old-fashioned this morning,

so don’t be alarmed when I reveal to you that …

I love the smell of a book.

I get a secret thrill cracking open a stiff spine and catching a whiff of never-been-read pages.

I even love the scent of a well-loved book, pages slightly yellowed, stories long unfurled.

That being said,

I have equally strong feelings about a musty book:


The stale scent of mold and mildew can ruin even the most devout book-lover’s reading experience before it ever begins.

And don’t even get me started on the persistent pong of cigarette smoke.


According to Yasmeen Khan, a rare-book conservator for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., “Since paper is made of moisture-sucking cellulose, the pages dry at a snail’s pace, creating the ideal damp environment for bacteria to thrive.”

Photo by Lin Kristensen (CC-BY-2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Hence, the unpleasant “old book smell.”

But, wait …

Don’t rush to kindle a fire to dispose of a malodourous old manuscript …

we’ve seen enough book burning in our time.

And with electronics hot on the heels of venerable volumes,

it’s practically a historical imperative to preserve the tangible texts we have.


Perhaps …

While there is no surefire way to completely eliminate odors from an old book, most bibliophiles recommend a simple process to reduce mustiness and improve readability:

  1. Wipe the book’s cover and page edges with a clean cloth to remove dust, which attracts mold spores.
  2. Set the book on end so that its pages fan open fairly evenly, and allow the book to air out in a dry location for three days. While the sun’s rays can work wonders against mildew, use caution when exposing older books because direct sunlight can damage the fragile pages of historic texts.
  3. Place the book, with pages fanned, into a sealable plastic bin or bag. Include an open can of coffee grounds in the bag as well. Seal the bin, and let it sit undisturbed for one month, allowing the grounds to work their odor-absorbing magic.

Store old books on dry shelves and dust them regularly. Since some smells will persist even in proper storage, be prepared to repeat the process of airing and coffee containment before you’re ready to read.

Leave a comment 2 Comments

  1. Winnie Nielsen says:

    You can also purchase ground charcoal at the pharmacy and use it in place of the coffee. It is basically odorless but has great ability to neutralize any odors. We use it in nursing for homecare when a patient has malodorous wounds. Just sprinkle some in a pan and place under the bed and then change out every few days as needed. But, the coffee would give it that wonderful coffee shop smell which would be nice!

  2. Pingback: Old Book Smell | Raising Jane Journal

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