84, Charing Cross Road

84 Charing Cross Road book cover

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by Helene Hanff
Avon Books (1970)

If there was ever a text book for our “why not try an older book” initiative here at Page Turners from the Past it’s clearly Helene Hanff’s bestseller 84, Charing Cross Road. Where else would you find a most entertaining older book, circa 1970, by an author who not only loves reads from the past but comes right out on the seventh page with the confirmation?

The book’s made up of a series of engaging letters from page turner (Hanff) to Marks & Co., Booksellers, a London house that specializes in older book sales. Here on page seven our bibliophile writes: “I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read of interest. The day Hazlitt (a book of Hazlitt’s essays she’d ordered) came he (Hazlitt) opened to “I hate to read new books,” and I hollered “Comrade!” to whoever owned it before me.”

Well comrade indeed. The only difference—which flies in the face of page turners from the past— is the fact that Helene Hanff (who lived in NY City and wrote for television and crafted children’s books) is, by her choice of books from the London seller, a bit, shall we say, highbrow.

And damned funny! And as her letter’s reveal, very generous!

Those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading this witty, poignant, and yes nostalgic collection of letters—back-and-forths that run from the late 1940s through the late 1960s—are in for a treat.

Hanff writes with a biting sense of humor and the book suppliers—the staff at Marks–who eventually become her pen pals across the pond respond with good humor but in a very proper British way.

She would rather order the books up long distance and ship wadded up paper money in the mail than shop the Barnes&Nobles of Manhattan. And so the Marks staff of London searches diligently for her off-the-wall, hard-to-find editions—everything from The Oxford Book of English Verse and The Pilgrim’s Way to De Tocqueville’s Journey to America and Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader.

The genius of the collection of letters is found in the development of characters and their relationships while setting the time and place. So there’s more than book buying and bookselling at work here with Ms. Hanff and her correspondents—through the written word—giving us a crystal clear view of life in post-World War II London.

Here we get insights into Hanff’s persona, politics, and self-deprecating humor:

14 East 95th St.
New York City
April 16, 1951

To All at 84, Charing Cross Road:

Thank you for the beautiful book. I’ve never owned a book before with pages edged all round in gold. Would you believe it arrived on my birthday?

I wish you hadn’t been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of the flyleaf. It’s the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you’d decrease the value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly 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 some on long gone has called my attention to.)

And why didn’t you sign your names? I expect Frank wouldn’t let you. he probably doesn’t want me writing love letters to anybody but him.

I send you greetings from America—faithless friend that she is, pouring millions into rebuilding Japan and Germany while letting England starve. Someday, God willing, I’ll get over there and apologize personally for my country’s sins (and by the time I come home my country will certainly have to apologize for mine).

Thank you again for the beautiful book, I shall try very hard not to get gin and ashes all over it, really much too fine for the likes of me.

Yours,

Helene Hanff  

With food and “luxuries” rationed in England following the war Hanff sends gifts of meats, eggs and clothing to her bookselling pen pals and their families. The appreciation and love that builds between the correspondents becomes increasingly evident with every letter.

Marks & Co., Booksellers
84, Charing Cross Road
London, W.C. 2

14th February, 1952

Miss Helene Hanff
14 East 95th Street
New York 28, New York
U.S.A

Dear Helene,

I quite agree it is time we dropped the ‘Miss’ when writing to you. I am not really so stand-offish as you may have been led to believe, but as copies of letters I have written to you go into the office files the formal address seemed more appropriate. But as this letter has nothing to do with books, there will be no copy.

We are quite at a loss to know how you managed the nylons which appeared this noon as if by magic. All I can tell you is that when I came back from lunch they were on my desk with a note reading: “From Helene Hanff.” No one seems to know how or when they arrived. The girls are very thrilled (the bookseller’s daughters) and I believe they are planning to write to you themselves.

I am sorry to say that our friend Mr. George Martin who has been so ill for some time passed away in hospital last week. He was with the firm a great number of years, so with that loss and the King dying so suddenly as well, we are rather a mournful crowd at the moment.

I don’t see how we can ever repay you for your many kind gifts. All I can say is, if you ever decide to make a trip to England, there will be a bed for you at 37 Oakfield Court for a long as you care to stay.

With best wishes from us all,

Frank Doel

The economical size of this 95 page booklet suggests (readable in one delightful sitting) that Page Turners should proceed with caution in the recommendation, give readers just a few of those letters to enjoy, and then step out of  Hanff’s way as the final letters bring a natural finality to this charming collection.

Oh, one more thing came to mind in the reading of 84, Charing Cross Road: a longing for the days when a series of personally hand-written letters could tell a story in a most warm and loving way. No hurried emails, no 140 character twitter limit, not a hashtag to be found.

*For a copy of 84, Charing Cross Road, ask your librarian, order through your independent bookseller or try Amazon.com where you can buy the 1970 collection of letters for less than Helene Hanff paid Marks & Company for her used copy of the Works & Life of Walter Savage Landor. Simply click on the book’s cover.

*The film 84, Charing Cross Road featuring Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench was released in 1987 to rave reviews.