Where has 84, Charing Cross Road been all my life?
26 March 2009
Okay, who among you out there has read Helene Hanff's correspondence collection 84, Charing Cross Road?
Anyone? Now, at the risk of sounding stern, if you have read this book, why weren't you telling me to immediately drop everything, get it, and read it? I don't mean to be churlish but you might have told me this perfect little book was just out there waiting for me.*
If you haven't read it, let me explain. It is, quite simply, a small collection of letters that passed between this totally awesome New York City broad Helene and the used bookstore, Marks & Company, at 84 Charing Cross Road, London, with whom she did book business for more than twenty years. It started off sedately enough, with Helene responding to one of their ads and asking for some clean secondhand copies of a few books she was looking for. An employee at Marks, Frank Doel, responded to her queries and sent her the books she requested when he could find them. Of course, he didn't always have exactly what she wanted on hand, which prompted a letter such as:
"Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND.
Where is 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 writitng 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."
I swear to God, I'm in love with Helene Hanff.
Eventually other store staff members start writing to her, and she writes back. Because they are in postwar England, and under some pretty strict rationing, she also starts to send them packages of meats and eggs and other goodies.
Have I mentioned how I'm in love with Helene Hanff? I don't care that this book was written in 1970 and Helene has long since passed on. Don't speak to me of these mere trifles.
No kidding. Although nobody told me to go read this book immediately (oh, sure, some people mentioned I might enjoy it, but that was not nearly strong enough language) I'll do my bit here: GO READ THIS BOOK IMMEDIATELY. I read it last week (I was prompted because the novel I reviewed yesterday, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, was similar to it) and now I'm busily revising my list of five books I'd take to a desert island with me. It literally made me forget my (admittedly small and stupid) worries for an hour, and for that I am eternally grateful to Helene. I hope wherever she is in the great big ol' crazy afterlife, there's books there with her, and a nice little bookstore to boot.
*I'm not taking the chance of missing something again. I'm going on a total Helene bender now, starting with Letter from New York and moving into The Duchess of Bloombury Street.