Monday, 23 February 2015

84 Charing Cross Road



When was the last time you fell in love with a book before reaching page 10? It happened to me last week when I picked up 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. I'm not fond of telling people that they have to read something, but for all book lovers this book is a compulsory. It all started back in 1949 when Miss Hanff wrote a letter from New York to the Marks & Co. bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road in London to ask about second-hand books for a reasonable price. What followed was 20 years of correspondence with mainly one of its staff members, Frank Doel. In her third letter, Hanff had dropped the formality and was already expressing her wit and wonderful sense of humour, but it took a bit longer for Frank Doel, the Brit, to do so. This is an extract from her sixth letter in March 1950 (the spelling is hers):

Where is the Leigh Hunt? Where is the Oxford Verse? Where is the Vulgate and dear goofy John Henry, I thought they'd be such nice uplifting reading for Lent and 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)

Her complaining, yelling tone just cracks me up. I don't have Hanff's courage to write margin notes in library books, but I mark sentences and passages with an x or a vertical line in mine.


Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road is 95 pages long; a quick read. Most of the letters are simply delightful and then there are a few, at least one, that will break your heart. I won't say more. Not only did Hanff send letters, she also sent food parcels (meat and eggs) to the staff members to express her gratitude for the books she was receiving. The correspondence started in post-war Britain and the rationing appalled her. In the beginning, the staff would hold on to the books she was interested in and ask her in a letter if she still wanted them. This was what she wrote to them in September 1950 from her apartment on 14 East 95th St.:

Never wonder if I've found something somewhere else, I don't look anywhere else any more. Why should 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)

The book reminds me of another delightful read, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, which I talked about in another blog post. When I finished reading these two I kept them close to my heart for just a few seconds. That's how much I loved them.


My edition of 84 Charing Cross Road includes the sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, which is about her trip to London (the illustration on the cover is by Sarah McMenemy). I wouldn't even consider reading the former without having the latter ready. After finishing the book I wanted more of Hanff, so I ordered Letter from New York. I got a used copy, which should arrive soon. I also found an audio version of 84 Charing Cross Road on YouTube, which I have already listened to twice while doing house chores. Then there is a film from 1987, starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, which I haven't seen.

If it's raining this is the perfect book to read under a blanket with a cup of coffee or tea and simply get lost in the delightfulness. I recommend having a stationery ready because after the reading you probably want to catch up on your correspondence. By that I don't mean emails!



12 comments:

  1. You have the best book recommendations, Lisa! This sounds so interesting and delightfully charming, I think I have to poke my nose into it!

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    1. Thank you, Igor, I try my best ;-) If you find it, please have a look. I was pretty much smiling or laughing during the entire reading.

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  2. This has been one of my favorite stories; I loved it years ago and still love it! You will enjoy the movie also- it's wonderful!! And, your new blog name and design are very nice ;)

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    1. Thank you, Lisa. I don't understand how this book managed to escape me all these years! Well, I saw a copy online that had an older cover and I immediately recognised that one, so at some point I must have seen it without realising how wonderful it was!

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  3. It is my birthday today and after reading your blog this morning, I decided to treat myself to something special. Me time!
    And special it was, I could not stop listening! Such a delightful story.

    Thank you!

    Regards from Austria.

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Miriam, and happy birthday! I'm so glad to hear you listened to the story and liked it, mainly because I wasn't sure if one would enjoy the audio version without having read the book. Obviously that is not the case! When I heard the audio version I was rather amazed to discover that the voice was pretty much as I had imagined Hanff's voice in my head.

      All the best to Austria!

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  4. I have to agree with Igor, you have such great book recommendations, Lisa! This is something I would love to read. And I have to watch the film too.

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    1. *blushing* ... I know you would love this one. I have been watching bits from the film on YouTube but I want to see it in full.

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  5. I am so so getting this book...tonight when I get home, I'll be hitting up amazon and hopefully have it for this weekend's reading. I'm loving the look of your blog Lisa!

    Hugs,
    Mary Jo

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    1. Thank you, Mary Jo. I hope you will enjoy the book as much as I did!

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  6. Thanks to you, my copy just arrived and I'm savoring every word slowly. Charing Cross is my very favorite street in London, love the used bookstores and of course, Foyles! Can't wait to be back in London and in Charing Cross Rd.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. I'm glad to read that you are enjoying the book. There really is something delightful about its tone.

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