84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

I came across this brilliant gem while causally browsing through my GoodReads homepage, and have since then fallen in love with its simplistic beauty and poignancy – the kind that induced tears not due to excessive sentimentality of any sort, but due to the brevity of the nature of the book itself. To do real justice to this masterpiece would be to read the book in paperback form, to let one’s fingers run through the pages, caressing the printed text, to feel the roughness of the cover and smell the heavy, wooden wafts that are native to any old book. But, all this I discovered only after having read the book in entirety. The unavailability of the book in its physical form made me read it in soft print, an EPUB format which, I admit, does not have the same allure as reading it in book form, perhaps borrowed from the library, or having stumbled upon it on some rusty shelf of an old book shop. Therefore, my experience of the book, the narrative, the concealed story within is dangerously lacking in its truest form. That being said, even reading it on an iPad evoked in me such passion and rapture that I was unable to keep the book all to myself. I had to share it, and immediately recommended it to a couple of good friends of mine.

Epistolary fiction had always captured my fancies, but I never knew non-fiction of a similar kind could possess far more power to entwine the reader in its vast web of human intricacies ranging from the art of letter-writing, to the art of conversation and how human compassion can traverse miles and miles of oceans to make a mark on people one has never met, seen, or even heard about. The potency of words is such that seemingly polarized people are woven together in a relationship that transcends the barriers of friendship and love and all other abstract notions mankind has come to acknowledge and define.

Such is the relationship between an aging scriptwriter hailing from New York, the vivacious Helene Hanff and a certain Frank Doel of Marks & Co., booksellers located in London at the eponymous 84, Charing Cross Road. Ms. Hanff has an unquenchable thirst for English literature and in search for now obscure classics does she begin her acerbic albeit sidesplitting correspondence with the booksellers situated miles away from her shabby apartment. Ms. Hanff stumbles upon the book dealers through an ad placement made in the Saturday Review of Literature. From here onwards starts a warm and compassionate relationship between her and Mr. Doel on whom the responsibility of delivering her books falls on. This relationship is penned down in form of letters spanning almost twenty years.

At first, Frank Doel assumes a reserved, formal tone in his letters to Ms. Hanff, with a somewhat reticent approach to her book demands. He addresses her as “Dear Madam” while she addresses them as “Gentlemen.” The first few letters are even signed off as “FPD, For Marks & Co.” It is only later on that such formality is dropped from both sides as Frank starts to sign off the letters with his real name, and Ms. Hanff begins to address the “inmates” of the book shop on first name basis, beginning with a polite Sir and even later on Frankie.

Ms. Hanff’s correspondence is primarily with Frank Doel but also extends to other employees of the bookshop, namely Cecily Farr who is the first one to address Ms. Hanff informally and on a personal level, inquiring about how she might look and thanking her for the Easter parcel. From here on, Ms. Hanff develops a long distance friendship with other staff members as well (Megan Wells, Bill Humphries) as they keep sending private letters to her, thanking her for Christmas presents, birthday packages and food parcels. Later on, Frank’s wife Nora too writes a letter of thanks for having received more food parcels and their neighbor Mary Boulton sends her own missive of having been grateful of receiving praise for an embroidered cloth sent to Ms. Hanff by Frank.

The earlier letters mostly contain requests for books but as we proceed further, the discussions vary on a range of topics such as recipe for Yorkshire Pudding, sports (the Dodgers for Ms. Hanff and Tottenham Hotspurs for Frank), the possibility of Ms. Hanff visiting England, families of staff members, the coronation of Elizabeth II, Ms. Hanff’s television career, Frank’s procurement of a dodgy, old car, post-World War II food shortages and so on. Perhaps it’s the diversity of personal and impersonal topics discussed over distances between complete strangers that render the book its sublimity as a moving, throat-lumping read. To complement this poignancy, photographs of Frank Doel and family, and the bookshop itself are included which throw the reader in a poetical trance in the midst of the text. I found myself whimsically, romantically invested in monochrome photographs of the interior of the bookshop, or where Frank sits on the bumper of his newly acquired car.

Here are some of my most beloved extracts from the book:

Ms. Hanff on previous book owners

I do love second-hand 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.

Ms. Hanff on her inclination for particular Romantic poets

I require a book of love poems with spring coming on. No Keats or Shelley, send me poets who can make love without slobbering—Wyatt or Jonson or somebody, use your own judgment. Just a nice book preferably small enough to stick in a slacks pocket and take to Central Park.

Ms. Hanff on the allure of old books

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.

Ms. Hanff on mutually shared history of two countries

I send you greetings from America—faithless friend that she is, pouring millions into rebuilding Japan and Germany while letting England starve. Someday, God willing, I’ll get over there and apologize personally for my country’s sins (and by the time i come home my country will certainly have to apologize for mine).

Ms. Hanff’s friend Maxine, describing the shop

It’s dim inside, you smell the shop before you see it, it’s a lovely smell, I can’t articulate it easily, but it combines must and dust and age, and walls of wood and floors of wood

Ms. Hanff on media hypocrisy

We’re sponsored by the Bayuk Cigar Co. and we’re not allowed to mention the word “cigarette.” We can have ashtrays on the set but they can’t have any cigarette butts in them. They can’t have cigar butts either, they’re not pretty. All an ashtray can have in it is a wrapped, unsmoked Bayuk cigar.

Ms. Hanff on sending the Doel’s another unexpected gift

I just talked to your mother, she says you don’t think the show will run another month and she says you took two dozen pairs of nylons over there, so do me a favor. As soon as the closing notice goes up take four pairs of nylons around to the bookshop for me, give them to Frank Doel, tell him they’re for the three girls and Nora (his wife).

Frank extending his generosity as a way of gratitude to Ms. Hanff

All I can say is, if you ever decide to make the trip to England, there will be a bed for you at 37 Oakfield Court for as long as you care to stay.

Ms. Hanff on having to invest in teeth rather than travel

So Elizabeth will have to ascend the throne without me, teeth are all I’m going to see crowned for the next couple of years.

Ms. Hanff, again, on previous book owners

It looks too new and pristine ever to have been read by anyone else, but it has been: it keeps falling open at the most delightful places as the ghost of its former owner points me to things I’ve never read before

Ms. Hanff on the undying value of books

I do think it’s a very uneven exchange of Christmas presents. You’ll eat yours up in a week and have nothing left to show for it by New Year’s Day. I’ll have mine till the day I die—and die happy in the knowledge that I’m leaving it behind for someone else to love. I shall sprinkle pale pencil marks through it pointing out the best passages to some booklover yet unborn.

Ms. Hanff on stealing

Have you got De Tocqueville’s Journey to America? Somebody borrowed mine and never gave it back. Why is it that people who wouldn’t dream of stealing anything else think it’s perfectly all right to steal books?

Ms. Hanff, again, on having to spend at home the money she had been saving up for travels to England

I am now racing around buying furniture and bookshelves and wall-to-wall carpet with all my England money, but all my life I’ve been stuck in dilapidated furnished rooms and cockroachy kitchens and I want to live like a lady even if it means putting off England till it’s paid for.

Ginny & Ed on hospitality

You might have warned us! We walked into your bookstore and said we were friends of yours and were nearly mobbed. Your Frank wanted to take us home for the weekend. Mr. Marks came out from the back of the store just to shake hands with friends-of-Miss-Hanff, everybody in the place wanted to wine and dine us, we barely got out alive.

Ms. Hanff on words and their associations

Nothing’s cheap any more, it’s “reasonable.” Or “sensibly priced.” There’s a building going up across the street, the sign over it says: “One and Two Bedroom Apartments At Rents That Make Sense.” Rents do NOT make sense. And prices do not sit around being reasonable about anything, no matter what it says in the ad—which isn’t an ad any more, it’s A Commercial. I go through life watching the English language being raped before my face.

Ms. Hanff using the phrase “gone out of her mind” for the second time in reference to Austen

Introduced a young friend of mine to Pride & Prejudice one rainy Sunday and she has gone out of her mind for Jane Austen.

Secretary Joan Todd informing Ms. Hanff on the sudden demise of her distant comrade, Frank Doel

8th January, 1969

Dear Miss,

I have just come across the letter you wrote to Mr. Doel on the 30th of September last, and it is with great regret that I have to tell you that he passed away on Sunday the 22nd of December, the funeral took place last week on Wednesday the 1st of January.

He was rushed to hospital on the 15th of December and operated on at once for a ruptured appendix, unfortunately peritonitis set in and he died seven days later.

He had been with the firm for over forty years and naturally it has come as a very great shock to Mr. Cohen, particularly coming so soon after the death of Mr. Marks.

Ms. Hanff to a friend, on old acquaintances, on England, on 84, Charing Cross Road

April 11, 1969

Dear Katherine

I take time out from housecleaning my bookshelves and sitting on the rug surrounded by books in every direction to scrawl you a Bon Voyage. I hope you and Brian have a ball in London. He said to me on the phone: “Would you go with us if you had the fare?” and I nearly wept.

But I don’t know, maybe it’s just as well I never got there. I dreamed about it for so many years. I used to go to English movies just to look at the streets. I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for. I said I’d go looking for the England of English literature, and he nodded and said: “It’s there.”

Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. Looking around the rug one thing’s for sure: it’s here.

The blessed man who sold me all my books died a few months ago. And Mr. Marks who owned the shop is dead. But Marks & Co. is still there. If you happen to pass by 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me? I owe it so much.

An obituary of Ms. Hanff in the New York Times, 1997

A child of the Depression, Ms. Hanff could afford only a year of college, and throughout her life was an impassioned autodidact, educating herself by reading the great books, which she preferred to procure from London rather than dip into “Barnes & Noble’s grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies.”

The last correspondence in the book to Ms. Hanff is by Sheila, Frank’s daughter, who apologizes for long silences and briefly describes the Doel’s lives after the death of Frank. I particularly enjoyed how the book ends abruptly, without mawkish sloppiness, leaving upon the reader an imprint of raw emotions experienced during the course of this short read.

The Epilogue tells us how Marks & Co. ceased business in December 1970, thus bringing our journey to a settled end.

It is the inclusion of minor characters, a few who are present in the book only by name, others make their appearance just the one time, and their personal lives that gives a touch of unbounded compassion to the book. We meet Cecily Farr, and are briefly introduced to her husband Doug who is stationed with the RAF, and her two children girl 5, boy 4 (they later shift to Iraq); Megan Wells, we are told, tries her luck first in Africa and then Australia; Bill Humphries, who lives with his 75 year old grandmother had been working with Mark & Co. as a cataloger for nearly two years; Mary Boulton is taken to a home owing to her old age; Brian (neighbor Kay’s British boyfriend) move to the suburbs leaving Ms. Hanff without a translator to convert British Pounds to American Dollars; Mr. Marks, the owner of the antiquarian booksellers who passes away before Frank’s untimely demise; and the last we hear of Mary Frank was of her working at a university while Sheila pursues a part-time degree.

It must be mentioned that Ms. Hanff did get to visit England and Charing Cross Road in the summer of 1971 but by then the still standing shop was empty, leaving behind nothing but a legacy preserved in the letters which Ms. Hanff had acquired and published in form of a book, and a commemorative plaque acknowledging the story. According to Wikipedia, the place now houses a McDonald’s restaurant, which for some odd reason, leaves me with a bitter taste.

I fully intend to revisit this book in a few years, if God wills.

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