Surely 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff must be one of the most charming and delightful books I've ever come across. I've read it before but it's been at least fifteen years now since I've picked the book up or seen the movie adaptation. As I've done an abysmal job this year of reading any nonfiction at all, I was thinking of which books might catch my attention enough that I won't read a chapter and then let the book languish like all my other recent attempts. Helene Hanff's books came to mind--I think I've got all of them but have only read a couple. They're short and several deal exclusively with books, so what better choice to restart my nonfiction reading.
I suspect you might have already read the book or perhaps seen the movie and thus know what the story is about. It doesn't seem as though so much time has passed really, but how the world has changed. It's a little sad to think how nostalgic it makes me feel. The book chronicles the twenty-year long correspondence between Helene Hanff and Frank Doel. Hanff was living in New York but unable to find the books she wanted to read, so contacted the British bookshop Marks & Co in London to locate them. Imagine buying your books through the mail and doing so via a written correspondence. Helene is outspoken and a little irreverent (The NYT called her "wittily acerbic") and Frank seems the very model British gentleman. America after the war was a land of plenty compared to Austerity Britain where meat and eggs and even nylons were still being rationed in the early 1950s. What began as a simple transaction became a friendship between not just Helene and Frank but the entire bookshop staff on Charing Cross Road. Helene often sent food parcels and the staff would reciprocate with books and other little gifts. A bookshop with a cataloger! I truly mourn the loss of bookshops like Marks & Co must have been, but progress is good, right?
There are many wonderful passages in the book, and I thought I'd share a few of them, beginning with a description of the shop. Hanff was never able to travel to Marks & Co while it was open, but a dear friend was in a theatrical production in London and sent home letters telling her about it.
"There are stalls outside and I stopped and leafed through a few things just to establish myself as a browser before wandering in. It's dim inside, you smell the shop before you see it, it's a lovely smell, I can't articulate it easily, but it combines must and dust and age, and walls of wood and floors of wood. Toward the back of the shop at the left there's a desk with a work-lamp on it, a man was sitting there, he was about fifty with a Hogarth nose, he looked up and said 'Good afternoon?' in a North Country accent and I said I just wanted to browse and he said please do."
Hanff didn't rely solely on finding used books via Marks & Co. She was also a library user.
"you leave me sitting here writing long margin notes in library books that don't belong to me, some day they'll find out i did it and take my library card away."
In reply to a book that the bookshop staff sent to Hanff as a thank you for one of her food parcels she bemoaned the fact they hadn't written their inscription in the book. By the way it came on her birthday.
"I wish you hadn't been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf. It's the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you'd decrease its value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly for the future owner. I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in the margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.)"
I should probably emulate Hanff in the way she approaches and collects books, but I think I wouldn't have as much fun as I do if I were to change my style. Still I admire how she went about her own personal literary education.
"You may add Walton's Lives to the list of books you aren't sending me. It's against my principles to buy a bookI haven't read, it's like buying a dress you haven't tried on, but you can't even get Walton's Lives in a library over here."
So, I'm not really very good at trying in clothes in the store before buying them either. Are you surprised.
Okay, just one more excerpt. I'm not very good at getting rid of my books, but it's not because they might be hardcovers. If I love it enough to keep it, it's one I would likely read again--or I would hope to anyway.
"My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don't remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON'T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can't think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book."
I love this book and am so glad I read it again. It can easily be read in an hour or so, but I dipped into it over the course of a few days to make it last. It's a little heart wrenching, but such a lovely story. If you've not had the opportunity to read it yet, do yourself a favor and find a copy. And if you have read it, it's well worth revisiting. The correspondence between Helene Hanff and Frank Doel took place from 1949-1968. 84, Charing Cross Road was published in 1970.
Next, I'm reading the sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street about Helene Hanff's much awaited trip to England, which she was finally able to make in 1970.