84, Charing Cross Road is made up of a series of letters between Helene Hanff and Marks & Co., a used-book shop in London, from 1949-1969. Helene’s main correspondent was Frank Doel.
Helene first contacted Marks & Co. from a magazine advertising their out-of-print and antiquarian books. Helene was looking for a list of such books which she couldn’t find at a decent price here. Someone signing himself FPD answered her queries and sent what he could find.
As Helene asked for more books and commented on the ones she received, eventually the correspondence became less formal. She and Frank called each other by their first names. When an English neighbor told Helene that Londoners were under rations (“2 ounces of meat per family per week and one egg per person per month”) she was “simply appalled” and sent them a small Christmas parcel (p. 7). That led to numerous packages being sent to the Marks & Co. store and divided up among the employees. Some of them even wrote Helene back personally.
The relationship between Helene and Frank was purely platonic: Frank’s wife even wrote to Helene sometimes.
Helene occasionally came across as somewhat brash and even a bit curmudgeonly, but Frank and the rest took her in good humor.
“Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND. Where is [a list of books she had asked for]. NOTHING do you send me. 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” (p. 10).
Some of her writing is just like that–iffy capitalization, etc.
She had plans to visit England sometime, but finances and circumstances never worked out (at least during the timing of this book: I read elsewhere that she did go years later after Frank had passed away and the store went out of business. She wrote of this trip in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and did get to meet Frank’s wife and daughter).
When I first heard of this book, I thought it was fiction and set longer ago than it was. I was expecting it to be “charming.” Once I put my expectations aside, I was able to enjoy the book for what it was. It was nice to watch the friendship unfold over the years. I am amazed that Helene could buy books and send food and nylons overseas at reasonable prices.
I enjoyed some of Helene’s observations:
“I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to ‘I hate to read new books,’ and I hollered ‘Comrade!’ to whoever owned it before me” (p. 7).
“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 margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to)” (p. 27).
For those who would want to know, there are a few “damns” and “hells” and a couple of crude expressions.
Helene had started out writing plays and scripts and eventually wrote articles and books. Wikipedia says she’s most well-known for this book, her first. A later book, Q’s Legacy, tells the background of how she started looking for the particular books which led her to write Marks & Co.
A 1987 film based on this book starred Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins (whom I can just picture as Frank). Part of me would like to see it; part of me is afraid too much stuff would be added in to flesh out the story. This book is only 97 pages, but perhaps they added in details from Helene’s other books.
Although the book wasn’t “charming” in the way I originally thought it would be, it does have a charm all its own. I’d love to read the other books some day.