The smell of newsprint is hard to describe — pungent, inky, old, dusty — all of the words fit but none is exactly right. And that is frustrating because the smell of newsprint is the smell of words.
I don’t remember the exact moment I fell in love with the smell. One day I barely noticed it; the next it was inescapable. Musty and warm, it pervaded the old newspaper building on the corner of Davis Lane and South Summer street. I came to know when and where it smelled best — on a Friday morning after the press run or on a late weekend afternoon when the building is empty except for the smell of the news hanging in the air.
Soon I was in love. Downstairs on Friday mornings, I found excuses to linger by the inserting machine. Double checking for car keys, making sure the back door was locked behind me, it was all a ruse to savor for one minute longer the smell of a week’s worth of headlines and stories. I deliberately did not wash the inky smudges from my fingertips after reading the paper.
I knew I would miss the smell long after I left the Gazette. The realization called to mind a line from a Toni Morrison novel. It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you, she wrote. I knew I missed the smell already.
The perfume of Gazette newsprint is old. A big paper in size and in history, the Gazette’s moniker is Martha’s Vineyard’s Newspaper of Record since 1846. So embedded in that newsprint smell are generations of editors, newsmen at typewriters and cub reporters who smoked as they wrote. I like to think that in a world of newspaper budget cuts and blogs, the smell of newsprint is unchangeable.
It was the history of the Gazette which lured me to the paper in the first place. Though I don’t remember the moment I fell in love with the scent of newsprint, I remember the exact moment when I fell in love with the Gazette. It was mid-January 2006 and I was standing in the middle of the newspaper archives, a small room where nearly every article ever published in the paper is filed away in manila envelopes. Some are stuffed to the gills (Alley’s General Store), while others have only one clipping inside (trash fish). Thumbing through them, the hours slip away.
Elbow-deep in files, I fell in love with the paper that winter day and its century and a half of history. The love of the building and its familiar smell, so hard to capture in words, would follow. Perhaps there are no adjectives to describe the smell. It is the smell of small-town news, of ink and rolls of paper too heavy for one person to move. It is the smell of so many Vineyard comings and goings, of breaking news and birth announcements and death notices. And with all that comes the faint odor of sweat and a hint of grease from the presses, which begin to roll late Thursday afternoon with a low rumble that echoes throughout the building.
Julia Rappaport leaves her job as reporter at the Gazette this week to move to Boston. She can be reached at Julia.Rappaport@gmail.com.