I’m kicking myself for not being able to get hold of a second hand copy of this book. As a book about the love of books, old books especially, it really calls out to be read second hand:
“I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else has turned and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to…”
I bought my copy in Waterstones last weekend for a whopping £7.99. I know that’s not really a lot but it occurred to me afterwards that I once bought six second-hand books in the Oxfam shop for a similar amount. Oh Waterstones. The real problem, I think, is that I’ve never really forgiven them for doing away with their regular 3-for-2 deal a few years ago. I just need to get over it. Anyway, I nearly didn’t buy 84 Charing Cross Road at all but while I was reading the blurb for the third time and ‘umming’ and ‘aahing’ in indecision a nice lady came up and told me how much she loved it. “I grew up in London in the 60s”, she said. “This book describes it exactly as I want to remember it.” So I bought the book.
84 Charing Cross Road is a collection of letters rather than a memoir. In 1949 Hanff was a poor New York writer “with an antiquarian taste in books”, books that she couldn’t find in libraries and bookshops at home. In desperation she wrote to Marks & Co. Booksellers, of 84 Charing Cross Road in London, supplying a list of books that she’d be interested in purchasing. Her letter sparked a twenty year long cross-Atlantic correspondence between Hanff and Frank Doel, Marks & Co.’s head buyer. She and Frank discussed books (of course), as well as dentistry and sports teams and their families. On several occasions Hanff sent him food parcels for doling out between staff in the shop who were still subject to post-war rationing. In return she was sent linen tablecloths and Yorkshire Pudding recipes along with her constant supply of antiquarian books.
I imagine Helene Hanff would have been a wonderful person to know. Her letters are funny and thoughtful and completely disarming. In one letter she’d be gushing about the wonderful tomes she’d been sent, in the next she’d be mock berating Frank for his failure to find an exact volume she wanted.
“I could ROT over here before you’d send me anything to read. I oughta run straight down to brentano’s, which I would if anything I wanted was in print.
You may add Walton’s Lives to the list of books you aren’t sending me…. “
I suppose the informality of it all must have been quite alarming for poor Frank at first but you can tell that he took real joy from these letters. I love the contrast between this warmhearted, brash New Yorker and Frank’s very British stiff-upper-lip reserve.
The correspondence between Helene and Frank and their various friends is touching and, in places, just downright funny. I got a little choked up at one point which I swear almost NEVER happens when I’m reading. Maybe the difference here is that these were real people, not fictional ones. But either way I was genuinely saddened.
My shiny new fresh-from-Waterstones copy of this book includes its sequel, The Duchess Of Bloomsbury Street, which was published three years after 84 Charing Cross Road became a hit. It takes the form of Helene’s diary, published in 1974 but written in 1971 when she finally made her long awaited trip to London. She was able to meet some of her long distance correspondents, visit the now empty Marks & Co. shop and tour the old haunts of her favourite writers. I liked this almost as much as 84 Charing Cross Road, mainly because it’s so nice to see London through the eyes of someone who had never been before. Her love for a city that she’d never visited is kind of lovely.
“Sometimes at home in the evening, reading a casual description of London by Hazlitt or Leigh Hunt, I’d put the book down suddenly, engulfed by a wave of longing that was like homesickness. I wanted to see London the way old people want to see home before they die.”
This book made me feel stupidly nostalgic and almost patriotic (which isn’t something I experience often). How nice it would be if the art of letter writing was alive and well (the only person I ever write to is my grandad) and we were still happy to invite strangers into our homes for strawberries and cream in the rose garden. Sigh.
It’s impossible not to like this book. I’m so pleased I finally got round to reading it.