84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff was a whim. I happened to see it mentioned recently in a couple of places and decided to see how it would go. Surprising to me, this was a short read of only ninety-seven pages. Perfect for a bit of bedtime reading for a few nights.
“I do love secondhand 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.”
The story is a simple but beautiful one, I think. Ms. Hanff shares the correspondence between Mr. Frank Doel and herself. Mr Doel is the chief buyer for a secondhand book seller, Marks and Co. Booksellers, in London. Ms. Hanff resides in New York and sends letters requesting books that she can’t find locally or in the condition she prefers.
“I wish you hadn’t been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf. It’s the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you’d decrease its value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly for the future owner. 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.)”
As time goes by, the letters become more than just book requests. A friendship develops between Ms. Hanff and Mr. Doel. The friendship extends to fellow employees at the bookstore, Mrs. Doel and even a neighbor. As England is recovering from the war shortages, Ms. Hanff even sends packages of food and necessities to her bookselling friends. I really enjoyed seeing the personalities come through each letter. I found myself smiling and laughing as I read.
“I am going to bed. I will have nightmares involving huge monsters in academic robes carrying long bloody butcher knives labeled Excerpt, Selection, Passage, and Abridged.”
All through the letters, we see Helen’s desire to go to London. Life is life and Helen’s plans of travel do not come to fruition.
“I don’t browse in bookshops, I browse in libraries, where you can take a book home and read it, and if you like it you go to a bookshop and buy it.”
For anyone who enjoys a book or loves a letter in the mail will likely enjoy this quick read. I found that I enjoyed it much more than expected and was not quite prepared for the ending. Short reads are not to be underestimated.