This is one of those books that has been sort of hovering on the periphery of my vision for a while. Every so often the name would pop up somewhere, and I would think, “Oh yeah, I wanted to check that book out, it sounds interesting.” And then I would promptly forget about it until the next time.
A couple weeks ago the title happened to pop into my head when I was actually in the library, so I looked it up, checked it out, and proceeded to devour it over the course of an afternoon, including several hours sitting in the sun in Waterfront Park before rehearsal. It’s that sort of book.
84, Charing Cross Road is a sort of epistolary memoir, a collection of letters between Helene Hanff, a writer living in New York, and the denizens of 84 Charing Cross Road, an antiquarian bookshop in London. The letters start in 1949, with a fairly straightforward and formal exchange regarding several books that Helene would like to order, but over the course of the correspondence both sides quickly dispense with formality and begin a “winsome, sentimental friendship based on their common love of books”, as it says on the back.
Book jacket descriptions like this are usually a bit overly sentimental themselves, but it really is lovely to see how the relationship between Helene and the bookshop employees (especially the man who deals with the majority of her correspondence, first introduced to her as only his initials, FPD). I particularly enjoy how conversational and funny Helene’s letters are. She quickly goes from a politely worded request to rhapsodic praises of her latest book–or caps-lock-ridden admonishments over missing passages in an edition of Sam Pepys’s diary or the bookshop’s sending her a book wrapped in the pages of other books. A sample:
All I have to say to YOU, Frank Doel [the aforementioned FPD], is we live depraved, destructive and degenerate times when a bookshop–a BOOKSHOP–starts tearing up beautiful old books to use as wrapping paper. I said to John Henry when he stepped out of it:
“Would you believe a thing like that Your Eminence?” and he said he wouldn’t. You tore that book up in the middle of a major battle and i don’t even know which war it was.
— Excerpt from October 15, 1950
But the letters don’t confine themselves to books, and the “winsome and sentimental” friendship really does develop between these people who have never seen each other face to face. Helene sends mail-order meat and eggs and nylons to the bookshop to supplement their post-war rations, and in return Frank & Co. sends Christmas gifts and any book they think Helene might have an interest in. There is a much talked-of trip to England with many offers of a bed should Helene ever come to visit, and by the end of the book I was at least as invested in this long-distance relationship as any relationship I’ve read. It’s fascinating seeing a friendship develop through this sort of correspondence over the course of twenty years, especially in this age of the Internet when even email has sort of been superseded by Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and Skype as forms of long-distance communication between friends. I love the fact that I can call up a friend on Skype and actually see their face and hear their voice, but reading this book made me want to write letters to all my friends and become pen pals.
Letters and relationships aside, one of the elements I connected with most was this longing for far off places and how books can bring those places to you, even if you can’t go to them. Helene spends years dreaming of going to England to visit and walking the streets where all those stories happened. This and that keep getting in the way, but in the meantime, she has the books and the letters from 84 Charing Cross Road, that make her little New York apartment a gateway to all sorts of places. It’s the magic of books. Helene sums this up herself perfectly near the end:
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.
If you happen to pass 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me? I owe it so much.