“If you happen to pass by 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me! I owe it so much.
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.
A classic memoir of friendship and bibliophilia, 84 Charing Cross Road–accompanied her by the delightful sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street–is an unlikely love story filled with charm and humour. – Goodreads
After reading Q’s Legacy and falling in love all over again with Helene Hanff’s prose and bibliophilia, I picked up my copy of 84, Charing Cross Road, ostensibly just to have a flip through. But before I knew it, I was settled in my cosy armchair and halfway through it all over again.
It’s a short book, and I discovered much to my delight that my edition also contains The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street – which is the story of Helene’s first trip to London, years after the correspondence that makes up 84, Charing Cross Road.
84 is one of those books that, though humble, holds great depths for readers who love books. (I realize I am writing this review as if you are already familiar with the book [which you should be] because I can’t really imagine not having become acquainted with Helene.)
I first came across Helene and Frank, her correspondent at the British bookstore Marks & Co, in the movie adaptation starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. This is the story of a New York writer (Hanff) who has antiquarian taste in books but without the bank account to afford the fine editions of her favourite books for sale in US bookstores. In desperation she writes to a store she found in an ad placed by a bookstore located in London, England who specialize in “out of print and antiquarian books.”
And so begins a life-long friendship that encompasses Frank, his family, all the staff of the bookstore and even some of their friends and family. The letters themselves become less formal and more humorous as the story progresses, and despite gaps in the correspondence where letters have been misplaced or Helene’s orders paused, the story unfolds fluidly. I highly recommend watching the film as well as reading the book – seeing Helene and Frank portrayed by such talented actors certainly does them justice!
The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street picks up more or less where 84 leaves off – with Helene’s first trip to London, more than 20 years later. She has spent years getting to know the city (both historically and present-day) through her books and overseas friendships, and has been dreaming of walking its streets, standing in the same spot as her literary and historical heroes and visiting Charing Cross Road.
When finally she sets foot on British soil, Marks & Co is no longer in business, but she visits the now-empty store and charms fans and friends into taking her on tours of her beloved London.
As someone who has also spent most of my life dreaming of living there, I can easily step right into her awed recounts of the London landscape – both the famous landmarks and the everyday ambiance of the city. It made me long to walk along beside her and see the sights!
Though after reading Q’s Legacy, which is written in narrative memoir style, the letters and journal were a bit harder to get into, they were still magical. Reading the three books back to back made me feel as if I know Helene better than ever. Her enthusiasm and wonder are contagious, and I don’t think it’s possible to read these stories without feeling a deep love of both the written word and London and New York of the past century.
Fans of books centred on reading and books must add Helene’s stories to their collection immediately, as they’re some of the best of the genre. And if you haven’t already read it, you can check out my review of Q’s Legacy here – you should really read it next!
Author: Helene Hanff
Published By: Sphere
Released: First ed. 1970
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Books, Reading
Date Read: July 20-31, 2014
Rating: 9/10 //<![CDATA[ var sc_project=10144299; var sc_invisible=1; var sc_security="82f610c9"; var scJsHost = (("https:" == document.location.protocol) ? "https://secure." : "http://www."); document.write("”); //]]>