Helene Hanff, 84, Charing Cross Road (1970)
I don’t remember when I first read 84, Charing Cross Road, but I think I must have been between ten and twelve. I vividly remember the cover of my parents’ paperback edition, with its red British pillar box and squat American mailbox spewing postmarks at each other on a yellow background. At some point I opened it and read for the first time:
October 5, 1949
Marks & Co.
84 Charing Cross Road
Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books…
Thus began a twenty-year exchange of letters and books between an impoverished New York writer and a bookshop in the city of her literary dreams. Not only requests and receipts were to fly across the ocean, but questions, commentary, recipes, food parcels, gifts, insults and endearments. The gathered correspondence is a portrait of a friendship created and sustained through words alone, testament to the power of reading and writing to connect us.
It’s a slender little book, yet it contains worlds. For my preteen self, as well as providing a glimpse into the exotic, faraway cities of London and New York, it was a window into the riches of English literature. In her exuberant, hilarious letters Helene Hanff unabashedly raves and rants about her favorite writers, an eclectic and sometimes frankly obscure bunch. Given her penchant for eighteenth century prose and general distaste for fiction, our reading preferences couldn’t be much more different, but still the soul of one booklover speaks to another.
Though I may not long to possess the complete sermons of John Donne or chuckle over my favorite passages from Pepys, Helene’s enthusiasm is nevertheless contagious. From her, I subconsciously learned that Great Books are not the preserve of snobbish academics, but the books we care enough about to shout from the rooftops and hug to our hearts. And having them in beautiful, lasting editions matters not because we want to impress others with our fine library, but because that forms the fitting garment for our most treasured thoughts.
As these letters were written, Helene was trying to make it as a playwright (see her marvelous memoir Underfoot in Show Business for more about that), and in spite of its seemingly casual, random nature, one can sense a dramatic shape to the correspondence. There’s the general movement from formal British business-speak to warm friendship on shop correspondent Frank Doel’s part, and the ongoing question of “will she ever get to England” – hopes are repeatedly raised only to be dashed by dentist bills, unemployment, and other inconvenient intrusions of real life.
Epistolary jokes are inserted so charmingly that one can hardly believe they weren’t “staged.” There’s the flood of grateful letters to Helene from the shop for a food parcel sent to relieve their postwar austerity, followed by one from Frank apologizing that she must not yet have heard a word of thanks since he’s been away on a business trip. And there’s the time Helene writes to her friend Maxine saying she’d never dare to show her face in the shop if she does get to England because of her outrageous letters – followed immediately by yet another outrageous letter.
And then there are all the great one-liners…
It’s against my principles to buy a book I haven’t read, it’s like buying a dress you haven’t tried on.
The day Hazlitt came he opened to “I hate to read new books,” and I hollered “Comrade!” to whoever owned it before me.
Anybody who wants to know what it was like to live in the time of Oliver Cromwell can flop on the sofa with Milton on his pro side and Walton on his con, and they’ll not only tell him what it was like, they’ll take him there.
But why am I taking up your valuable time by describing what you could much more enjoyably be reading yourself? 84 Charing Cross Road has recently been reissued by Slightly Foxed Editions as a suitably beautiful, durable, and charming volume bound in pillar-box red. Included is the sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, in which, following the successful publication of 84CCR, Helene does at last get to travel to England. Together they make a wonderful gift for any booklover on your list, or for yourself. (Don’t wait too long, though. This edition is limited to 2000 copies, and I suspect they’ll fly off the shelves.)
As Helene later admitted, she could probably have found the books she wanted in New York, but she was really looking for a connection to London, its history and its people. She got that, and thanks to her little/big book, her love letter to books and people and life, we do too.