84, Charing Cross Road
It was a half-day Friday before the long Presidents Day weekend. There was a bookstore not too far from the office that was having a moving sale that I had been meaning to check out. I kept devising plans of how I could make it there and back during my hour lunch but as no plan could give me adequate book browsing time, one cannot rush the book browsing process, I thought this was my chance. The sky had been threatening rain all day and finally broke into a tremendous downpour as I pulled up outside the bookstore.
Alias Books East specialized in selling new and antiquarian books. The store was small with roughly six rows of parallel brown bookshelves in the center of the store, surrounded on all four sides by identical bookshelves lining the perimeter. It was a haven from the sudden showers – having already deposited my dripping umbrella at the door – I became suddenly aware of my squeaky shoes in the quiet shop. There was only another couple in the room animatedly whispering next to the science fiction, then history, then art. I started with the fiction section, which is always my go to.
At first I wasn’t expecting much. My eyes darted around the shelves looking for something that sounded familiar or was on the list of titles I had wanted to find. I was in the mood for a new edition of Little Women so I started in the A’s. Little Men, Eight Cousins, a selection of what appeared to be short stories, but the March girls were absent. I moved further down the alphabet where I stumbled upon a book titled The Fifth Queen by Ford Madox Ford that I had never heard of before. It’s historical fiction about Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s last wife, told in three parts, and dedicated to Joseph Conrad. Well, I needed that, I decided, as I tucked it beneath my arm. I moved further down the row when I saw a very slim edition of 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. That sounded familiar. Wasn’t there a film by that name with Anthony Hopkins? I knew of the book and remembered that I wanted to read it ages ago but couldn’t place where I had ever seen an edition before. Out of curiosity, I picked it up and added it to my pile.
The edition I bought was printed in 1975 and is labeled as the “deluxe gift edition.” I think it was the cover that sold me, if I’m honest. It has a plastic cover over the dust jacket, much like an old library book would have. I love a handwritten letter, especially when it’s traveled a great distance to reach me, and something about the stamps on the cover told me this book was for me. Not to mention that I’m a sucker for stories set in England. Reading such stories reminds me of the country I love and miss, and somehow always seems appropriate to my mood. After a few more turns of the room, I left with four books wrapped in brown paper, including The Radio Family by Ingeborg Bachmann for H – it’s a series of German radio plays that have been published for the first time, and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman. Amanda Foreman was a client of my old company, which I was still working for at the time, and back in my early days in the mailroom, I majorly fangirled over her and her work. She’s a biographer and historian who has roots in London, Los Angeles, and New York, studied at Oxford where she received her doctorate in 18th Century British History, and now writes books, primarily about badass historical women. I had been looking for a copy of her first book for a while, and not wanting to buy it online, I was very happy to add it to my pile. My books and I headed back into the rain and attempted to avoid palm fronds falling in the road as we drove home.
The next day, I drew myself a mid-day bath and settled in to read 84, Charing Cross Road with a cup of tea and a tiny cat by my side. The book is nothing like what I was expecting. I didn’t realize it was a collection of actual letters, not fictional letters. The style reminded me very much of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Peel Society which I absolutely loved. I was fully expecting to like the book, but what I wasn’t expecting was to fall in love with it, and spend the next few months recommending it to anyone who asked (or didn’t). We follow the correspondence of Miss Helene Hanff of New York and Mr. FPD (who we’ll later come to know as Frank) of Marks & Co., Booksellers of 84, Charing Cross Road, London.
Their letters begin as business correspondence when Helene writes to say she’s heard Marks & Co specializes in out-of-print books and could they please send her any of the books on her list because it’s simply impossible to find rare editions in New York that won’t cost as much as her apartment. And thus, their relationship is born. For the first quarter of the book, the letters are fairly professional as they discuss books of all subjects – Helene favors non-fiction, but what becomes apparent over time is the growth of their relationship that’s built over years and how much joy these letters bring to each party. Personal antidotes and questions begin to dot their letters. Parcels are shipped across the Atlantic and with it come so much joy in receiving products post-war England hasn’t seen in years. I found a recipe for the Easter cake mentioned in the book, which I almost attempted to make this past Easter, but ended up with hot cross buns instead. Still delicious, but not quite the heavy fruit filled cake Frank describes.
What struck me the most was how ordinary it all seemed but also so extraordinary. There’s a bookstore in London I would love to establish a relationship with like Helene did, but I for some reason find it so much harder to reach out and say hello than it should be. I was pulled into the lives of everyone at Marks & Co and found myself wanting to know more about them. Long stretches of time would pass in-between letters and I wondered what had Helene and Frank been doing over the six months since they last spoke. What were their lives like? What did the like to do? Their relationship is grounded in their love of books, but remains on going for all those years because they enjoy the conversations and genuinely care of the person on the other end of the letter. Finding a connection like that is priceless and oh so special when it’s found. I would be hesitant to call 84, Charing Cross Road a traditional love story though I do think it contains many conventions of such stories, but I would say it’s more a story of companionship. Now, I don’t want to give too much of it away as the beauty of the book lies in its simplicity. It made me laugh out loud, shake my head in agreement and disbelief, and also left me heartbroken. I’m still not over the ending and don’t know if I ever will be.
At 97 pages, I devoured it in a single afternoon, moving from the bath to the sofa, and not leaving until I had finished. It hit me at my core and is a lovely piece of storytelling. The letters kept me guessing what was going to happen and while there are twists and surprises along the way – much like our actual lives – it was the characters that kept me coming back and wanting to know what happened next. Once you reach the end, prepare to have a few solitary moments to reflect and pull yourself together. You’re going to need it before you’re able to launch back into the world around you. With Helene’s encouragement, I plan to reach out to that London bookstore and say hello, and if I’m lucky, I hope to form my own version of correspondence with them. I encourage you all to do the same with whomever you’ve been meaning to write.