Thursday, November 24, 2011

still-sound 19. Garland of Letters

Mademoiselle de la Valliere from Cire Trudon

My fascination with incense began in two places: church and a little new age shop in Philadelphia called Garland of Letters.  I will write about church incense another time. Today I'm thinking about the little bookstore on South Street which was almost a weekly destination for me in the late 1980s when I was in high school.  South Street was home to Zipperhead and Tower records - two daytime hangouts for teenagers with Gothic tendencies, like myself. Garland of Letters most likely grabbed my attention since Garlands is the name of the first Cocteau Twins album.  It's not an exaggeration to state that the Cocteau Twins were more or less my religion back then.  In fact, it's probably still true. 

The life-size lion sculpture prowling the entrance of the shop probably caught my eye as well.  It stalked the vestibule that was flanked on either side by long glass vitrines diplaying the other-wordly wares of the store.

I discovered the Auroshikha line of incense at Garland of Letters, nestled between gongs and trays of semi-precious stones.  I tried various flavors from the line but consistently bought gardenia and magnolia.   The scent of the sweet smoke could be described as a creamy white floral, somewhere between gardenia and tuberose.  At the same time of my life I would find potted gardenias for sale at the supermarket - usually in January or February.  I would choose the plant with the most blossoms and full buds.  I found from experience that once the blooms had faded no more would ever appear from the plant.  I now realize that gardenias require heat and constant sunshine.  They were doomed in suburban Philadelphia.  They thrive in California.  I have a plant on my terrace and the flowers keep appearing.  I usually snip them and place them in a bud vase I made.

The Azusa incense from Kyukyodo (the makers of the stellar Sho-ran-koh) emits a smoke not terribly different from the Auroshikha gardenia.  I could be completely wrong in my assessment - it has been over twenty years since I smelled the latter.  Azusa is certainly how I remember the Auroshikha gardenia incense.   Sweet, floral, creamy.  Azusa is perhaps a little richer, revealing a soft sandalwood note.

Azusa from Kyokyodo

I discovered a candle that also inhabits this beautiful territory between gardenia and tuberose called Mademoiselle de la Valliere from the Cire Trudon candlemakers.  Named after the mistress of Louis XIV, the scent is meant to evoke the 'damp fragrance of an intoxicating love: from the King's bedroom to the convent'.  Apparently Miss Valliere spent her latter years in a convent.  Not having experienced either a king's bedroom or a convent, the scent to me is that of adolescent awakening in the Garland of Letters shop on South Street, Philadelphia.  I haven't lit the candle yet - I was waiting for tonight, Thanksgiving evening.


  1. I love dipping into your world via these atmospheric posts. Funny that the practice of "listening to incense" involves dissolving into its atmosphere, and nostalgia and memories (evoked often in your writing), is another kind of atmosphere.

  2. Thank you Katie. I love that expression, 'listening to incense'. I've always been fascinated by synaesthesia although, admittedly I haven't really 'heard' very much from my incenses so far. I do sometimes feel music spatially though. Does that count?

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