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Monthly Memoirs Monday, 01/01/2024

"The Smell of a New Book"

January 2024 Monthly Memoir - Marilyn Gelman wrote this months memoir and it is being published posthumously because we lost Marilyn in May 2019.

This piece was published in a national magazine called “Down Memory Lane,” (Dobbs Publishing) circa 1992-3. 
            “The Smell of a New Book”
Smell of a new book in the last-gasp heat of late summer; crisp cotton, winter-plaid dress scratching my legs; I am at the fresh start of another grammar school year.
The whole block bathed the night before.  To our mothers, tricking us into our houses, it was the eve of the first day of school; to us, in our innocence, it was a night like all others before it: steamy, hazy, and endless.    Paterson’s East 25th Street rang with challenges:
         “Can Marilyn be in her pajamas before Beverly?”
         “Can Beverly beat April into bed?”
     “Hurry, hurry into your bath before the sewers clog.  Every kid in town is in the tub tonight!”
P.S. 21 waits for us, unornamented by the unfinished business of dusty erasers, scuffed wooden floors, or overflowing green metal wastepaper baskets.  The cut-outs of pumpkins, turkeys, and snowflakes are yet to be taped onto the window panes.  In each classroom, piles of textbooks stand ready for distribution, according to each teacher’s administrative style.  And the blank lines of the form in the front of each book need to be filled in with our names, the date, and the book’s condition:  “new,”  “very good,”  “good,”   “fair,” or “poor.”    Most books in a single subject area would be “good,” gently used by only a few students before us.  “I have your old geography book,” I’d tell a big kid, expecting her to share my excitement about the new bond between us. 
On rare occasions, every book in a subject area would be “new.”  Our teacher would show us how to open a new book by thirds and to smooth down the pages without damaging the spine.  She’d caution us to keep the book covered at all times and warned us to keep it away from food. 
All books, in any condition, needed to be covered in the book-cover-ritual which included accurate measurements, a satisfying crunch of scissors working through heavy brown paper, the careful folding, and the suspense of whether the book would fit into the flaps.  The final triumph was creating a book cover that needed no tape.
Sometimes, among twenty-five “good” or “fair” books, two or three new ones would sparkle like jewels in the sun.  Who would get one of those “new” books?   Who would have the pleasure of being the first to open it?  to smell the ink and smooth the pages?  to have her names written first in the space for “issued to” to have the teacher quietly say, “I know you’ll take good care of it.”
Would my teacher allow the accident of chance to choose, by giving the new book to the next person in line?  Or, by sitting up straight in my chair with ankles crossed, fingers interlaced on the desktop, trying to look honest, responsible, and trustworthy to this stranger, would I get the new book?

Marilyn Gelman

Marilyn April 1955
Marilyn July 1956
Marilyn's mom Hilda.  For many years Hilda was the secretary of the rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Paterson.  Hilda's husband, my dad, Harold ("Heshie"), was the star haberdasher at "bond's" in Paterson.