It made me weep, it made me laugh… where do I start? Can’t find the right words to describe how charming this little book was. It’s a classic but if you’re anything like me and you’ve never read it before then allow me to introduce you to 84 Charing Cross Road.
Written in 1970 by Helene Hanff herself who is an American writer born in Philadelphia. Later Helene lived in New York and worked as a freelance writer. During her stay in New York Helene contacted Marks & Co., an antiquarian booksellers in London and developed a fondness in purchasing her books directly from them. Helene writes in her letter to Marks & Co., “Why would I run all the way down to 17th St. to buy dirty, badly made books when I can buy clean, beautiful ones from you without leaving the typewriter? From where I sit, London’s a lot closer than 17th Street” (p.15).
Over the course of 20 years Helene maintained a delightful relationship with the people of 84. I find so interesting that in 1970 she has described purchasing her books from a distance somewhat similar to how a person would purchase their books today online “from where I sit, London’s closer than 17th Street”; however, unlike many online bookstores today, Marks & Co., wrote back and interacted with Helene on a personal level.
In my opinion what makes Helene’s book so wonderful is its ability to showcase the value of having a favorite bookstore with a favorite salesperson. There are many essays and books today that speak about the lost charm of bookstores dominated by Amazon and E-Books. Helene’s book shows you how.
Helene describes her delight when her books finally arrive by Book Post, “Thank you for the beautiful book. I’ve never owned a book before with pages edged all round in gold… I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to… it’s really much too fine for the likes of me” (p. 27).
The entire book is a set of correspondences between Helene and the used-book dealers in London. Sometimes I couldn’t believe that it was written in 1970. Henele’s sense of humor, the progression events and witty descriptions here and there are truly a joy to read from start to end.
It really made me wish I could write snail mail again. It also made me wish I had a favorite bookshop too. It is satisfying to be able to download a book I want to read with the press of a button but it’s far more fulfilling to ask a sales best friend to recommend a book, sit and wait for it to arrive then cherish the physical copy on a bookshelf.
I’ve written a post about my own visit to Charing Cross Road last summer and how disappointed I was at finding many of the old bookshops closing down. Marks & Co. is another bookstore that followed the same unhappy fate; however, I just discovered that in its place lies a plaque!
I hope I get to see it myself one day!
- Paperback: 97 pages
- Publication date: 1970
- ISBN-13: 978-0-14-014350-8
- My Rating: ★★★★★