It’s funny how you can fall in love with a book, not for its length or style, but the intellectualism of the characters within it. 84, Charing Cross Road is a series of letters between an American writer Helene Hanff and antiquarian book trader/seller, Frank Doel.
Their correspondence spans a total of twenty years, from 1949 through to 1969. My copy even comes with its own epilogue, a book published by Hanff after the success of the published letters, called The Dutchess of Bloomsbury. Here Hanff finally manages to take a trip to London, her second home.
“In 1949 Helene Hanff, ‘a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books,’ wrote to Marks & Co. Booksellers of 84 Charing Cross Rd, in search of rare editions she was unable to find in New York. Her books were dispatched with polite but brisk efficiency. But, seeking further treasures, Helene soon found herself in regular correspondence with bookseller Frank Doel, laying siege to his English reserve with her warmth and wit. And, as letter, books and quips crossed the ocean, a friendship flourished that would endure for twenty years.” GoodReads.
It would be no spoiler to tell you that the correspondence between Helene and Frank ends due to his sudden death in 1969. An upsetting event which, and this will come as no surprise, made me weep. Over the years Hanff’s easygoing American nature breaks down the austere British professionalism of Doel. Even though their letters are months and years apart they become firm friends. Helene sends the bookshop packages during rationing, nylons to Doel’s wife and gifts to a neighbour of Doel’s who made her a blanket. Her generosity knows no bounds.
“I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for. I said I’d go looking for the England of English literature, and he nodded and said: ‘It’s there.’ Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. Looking around the rug one thing’s for sure, it’s here. The blessed man who sold me all my books died a few months ago. And Mr Marks who owned the shop is dead. But Marks & Co. is still there. If you happen to pass by 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me! I owe it so much.”
It’s a simple and easy read, brim full of personality. I could hear Helene in my head, understood her personality (and Doel’s). They discuss literature, hidden gems I now want to discover. The love of books, of history, that Hanff pours out is delightful. She isn’t a tourist or collector, she is a lover of what she reads and knows.
This is the environment I want to live in, with literary correspondence and English delightful-ness. The only thing to decide now is which bookshop to write to.
Have you read 84, Charing Cross Road? Or anything similar? Do you enjoy reading correspondence?