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[748] 84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

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” If you happen to pass by 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me? I owe it so much. ” (94)

This book, just under a hundred pages, is Helene Hanff’s memoir that unfolds through transatlantic letters, dated from 1949 to 1969, between Helene and the employees of Marks & Co., a bookstore specializes in antiquarian and second-hand books in London. In all begins when Helene spots and responds to the books store’s ad in the Saturday Review of Literature, inquiring about several out-of-print and rare books. What ensues is a correspondence spanning twenty years between a literary camaraderie.

Apropos of a booklover’s haven, Marks & Co. is “the loveliest old shop straight out of Dickens,” (28) redolent of must and dust, with “shelves going on forever, up to the ceiling.” The primary correspondent is Frank Doel, a man in his late thirties who is extremely well-read and knowledgeable. He sends Helene old books of soft vellum and heavy cream colored pages, which she stores in orange crate bookcases in her cramped New York City apartment. In turn, Helene sends her literary friends parcels, including egg powder and a whole ham, as food is rationed in postwar England.

I personally cannot think of anything less sarosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book. (54)

The pages move quickly with Helen’s eclectic requests made to the bookseller. But what makes this slim collection of letters so powerful and captivating is the comradely touch. Business formality over time wears away, and Helene become like friends and family with the bookstore staff. Adding to the literary exchange are recipes for Yorshire pudding, personal photos, and handcrafted linen tablecloths.

Elaborated from these letters is her preference of eclectic taste. She prefers nonfiction over fiction, and it’s only to the strong recommendation that she gingerly tries Jane Austen. She has penchant for English non-fiction from the 17th- and 18th-century and memoirs. She dreams of traveling to the UK where she hopes to find “the England of English literature” and pays a personal visit to the endeared staff at the bookshop.

This gem of a book illustrates the love of books with a passion that overcomes social and physical distance. It also makes us question the current state of instant communication through texting. It is a celebration of written word, a common bond of humanity, which connects us all from generation to generation.

97 pp. Penguin Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[342] 84 Charing Cross Road – Helen Hanff

I put off reviewing this book until after my third read. What slim volume actually affords a twenty-year correspondence between the author, Helen Hanff, and Frank Doel, chief buyer of Marks & Co, antiquarian booksellers located at the eponymous address in London, England. Hanff, in search of obscure classics and British literature titles she had been unable to find in New York City, noticed a timely ad in the Saturday Review of Literature and first contacted the shop in 1949. Doel was the first person to fulfill her requests. In time, a long-distance friendship evolved, not only between the two, but between Hanff and other staff members as well, with an exchange of Christmas packages, birthday gifts, and food parcels to compensate for post-World War II food shortages in England. Their letters included discussions about topics as diverse as the sermons of John Donne, how to make Yorkshire Pudding, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Written in epistolary form and reads like a novel though it is non-fiction, 84 Charing Cross Road is a story of beginnings and endings as represented by each letter, from date to signature. The power of language figures prominently (which also makes the book such a joy to peruse), presenting the challenge of inference in the white space of the text as Helene waits breathlessly for her next letter to arrive. In others, Helen’s anticipation becomes the reader’s as well. Their friendship is one that writers would vie to write in fiction, but didn’t have to because it was real. Both Hanff’s and Doel’s love of the written word is practically a character itself. After all, this book is a most perfect book about books and reading really. It’s the quest for books and literary interests that have made this friendship possible.

97 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]