In a letter dated April 10, 1950, Helene Hanff writes:
A newspaper man I know, who was stationed in London during the war, says tourists go to England with preconceived notions, so they always find exactly what they go looking for. I told him I’d go looking for the England of English Literature, and he said, “Then its there.”
If you love English literature, old books, or bookstores, then you must, must read 84 Charing Cross Road. It is a collection of the letters of Helene Hanff, a television writer and New York City–based author, and Frank Doel, the buyer for London’s Marks & Co. Booksellers, the bookshop located at 84 Charing Cross Road. Their correspondence spans twenty years throughout the 1950s and ’60s; as the decades go by, their business relationship blooms into a true friendship. As Hanff writes, “You see how it is [F]rankie, you’re the only soul alive who understands me.”
This transcontinental biblio-romance begins with a letter inquiring after an ad in the Saturday Evening Review. Hanff’s tastes lean toward the out-of-print (think Chaucer and The Oxford Book of English Prose), and she can’t find anything in New York.
Doel responds, sending some lovely books for cheap, and they’re off. They slowly reveal their lives to each other—Hanff’s as scrounging, scrappy aspiring playwright, Doel’s as a husband and father in post-war rebuilding London. Hanff is brassy and hilarious—she is known to type in all caps (“AND I NEED READING MATTER, NOW DON’T START SITTING AROUND, GO FIND ME SOME BOOKS”) or sign off as “h.hfffffffffffff”; Doel is reserved and witty (“Prepare yourself for a shock. ALL THREE of the books you requested in your last letter are on the way to you and should arrive in the next week or so. Don’t ask how we managed it—it’s just part of the Marks service”). Letters from Hanff’s friends and Doel’s coworkers create a three-dimensional portrait of this unlikely friendship.
Hanff and Doel are a fascinating sliver of life in mid-century New York and London. Early in their correspondence, Hanff mails Doel and his coworkers fresh dairy and meat from Denmark for Christmas because those items are still rationed in London. We read about Elizabeth II’s coronation and the Brooklyn Dodgers. This is a correspondence from another time, and as a bookseller, I wish I could have been around when business was conducted with letters and ledgers. I imagine Doel as a man who could remember every book in his shop—he could pick the perfect volume for a customer from a dusty stack. I love imagining Hanff in her Upper East Side apartment, smoking a cigarette and reading a leather-bound copy of Pride and Prejudice. I know it’s great that my independent bookstore has a database, and that my yearning for pre-Amazon, pre-Kindle era is nostalgic cliché, but the fact of the matter is Marks & Co. is no longer in business. The sweetness of this book is tinged with sadness.
This is a book to take to a park on a nice spring day (if you want to follow Hanff’s footsteps, take it to Central Park) and read in one go (it’s only ninety-five pages!). If you’re anything like me, you might have to put it down from time to time and sigh, and smile.
Sky Friedlander is a bookseller at New York’s Strand Book Store.