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Listen: Do you smell something?

If you want to get all technical about it, the candle that smells like a Hills Department Store and that caused a bit of a viral sensation last month, was not actually supposed to smell like Hills. It’s more accurate to say it smelled like snack bar food that was sold at Hills.

That didn’t stop people from reminiscing about what it smelled like at Hills.

HILLS! A hardware store, I would understand, but Hills? The very idea that someone would market something that had “Hills” and “smell” in the same sentence was astounding to me. (A friend who worked there in his youth referred to the odor he recalls as “fake air smell.”)

What was not the least bit surprising about the reaction to the candle was the idea that aroma has a powerful effect on our memory. Sometimes a smell will take you back somewhere in a way a taste or a sight just can’t, as this article in Psychology Today explained.

“Incoming smells are first processed by the olfactory bulb, which starts inside the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain. The olfactory bulb has direct connections to two brain areas that are strongly implicated in emotion and memory: the amygdala and hippocampus. Interestingly, visual, auditory (sound), and tactile (touch) information do not pass through these brain areas. This may be why olfaction, more than any other sense, is so successful at triggering emotions and memories.”

“Everybody has a story about Hills. Everybody misses it,” said the man behind the popular candle.

So clearly, some people want to be reminded of the memory of being in Hills and if that means being reminded of the smell, so be it.

But if that premise works, let me offer some other long-ago Buffalo smells that could sell:

  • Driving past Bethlehem Steel on the hottest day in August
  • Elementary school hallway after the custodian was forced to use that sawdust stuff because you know that one kid who threw up all the time? He just threw up again
  • Coming home from Beaver Island just past the Grand Island bridges on the 190 near the oil storage tanks in Tonawanda (which was still better than the smell of Beaver Island some days)
  • Sunday drive in farm country during manure spreading season
  • High school locker room
  • Crowded Metro Bus
  • Salmon Patty Night at my house on Fridays during Lent
  • Basement carpeting after the power went out and the sump pump failed (This usually led to the excellent question, “Why, exactly, do we have carpet in the basement?”)
  • Hallways between periods of a Sabres game at the Aud when people still smoked like their lives depended on it (If you didn’t have the pleasure, imagine “any time of any day in any casino”)
  • Radiator overheating in your AMC Gremlin
  • Walking back in the house after a family vacation and realizing that someone forgot to take out the garbage last week
  • The first step inside the cottage that year, before you opened the windows
  • Mud room at the house where everyone wore leather sneakers without socks during the summer
  • Eraser clapping air (In retrospect, I think that may have been child abuse)
  • Holding the incense decanter while doing altar server duties at Mass (see above)
  • Men’s Room at War Memorial Stadium/Rich Stadium in the fourth quarter of any 1970s Bills/Dolphins game

That last one could really sell: It includes two things that stunk to high heaven.


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