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84, Charing Cross Road Paperback – October 1, 1990
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84, Charing Cross Road is a charming record of bibliophilia, cultural difference, and imaginative sympathy. For 20 years, an outspoken New York writer and a rather more restrained London bookseller carried on an increasingly touching correspondence. In her first letter to Marks & Co., Helene Hanff encloses a wish list, but warns, "The phrase 'antiquarian booksellers' scares me somewhat, as I equate 'antique' with expensive." Twenty days later, on October 25, 1949, a correspondent identified only as FPD let Hanff know that works by Hazlitt and Robert Louis Stevenson would be coming under separate cover. When they arrive, Hanff is ecstatic--but unsure she'll ever conquer "bilingual arithmetic." By early December 1949, Hanff is suddenly worried that the six-pound ham she's sent off to augment British rations will arrive in a kosher office. But only when FPD turns out to have an actual name, Frank Doel, does the real fun begin.
Two years later, Hanff is outraged that Marks & Co. has dared to send an abridged Pepys diary. "i enclose two limp singles, i will make do with this thing till you find me a real Pepys. THEN i will rip up this ersatz book, page by page, AND WRAP THINGS IN IT." Nonetheless, her postscript asks whether they want fresh or powdered eggs for Christmas. Soon they're sharing news of Frank's family and Hanff's career. No doubt their letters would have continued, but in 1969, the firm's secretary informed her that Frank Doel had died. In the collection's penultimate entry, Helene Hanff urges a tourist friend, "If you happen to pass by 84, Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me. I owe it so much."
About the Author
Helene Hanff (1915–1997) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the 1940s and ’50s she wrote plays and television scripts in New York City, but found little success until her best-known book, 84, Charing Cross Road, was published in 1970. The book was a smash hit and has been adapted for the radio, stage, film, and television.
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In 84, Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff finds kindred spirits in a bookshop across the ocean. October 5, 1949, Helene writes her first letter to Marks & Co., a second-hand bookshop in London that specializes in out-of-print books, to inquire after a list of books she can't seem to get a hold of. The bookshop manages to procure most of the list for her and assure her they'll be on the lookout for the rest. It was this exchange that started a twenty-year correspondence between Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, an employee of Marks & Co.
Helene and Frank's letters start out very formal, but through time, the pretenses come down. Their letters become friendly, and before long, she's exchanging letters not only with the other staff, but also with their families. Although this book is slim, at less than a hundred pages, it's full of heart. 84, Charing Cross Road, is the book Helene Hanff is most remembered for and it's not hard to see why.
It is nothing less than a delight to eavesdrop on the dialogue between Ms. Hanff and her London bookseller, mostly represented by Frank Doel but with other staff members joining in along the way. It begins with her first letter to the bookseller in October of 1949 and continues until October of 1969. Along the way there are insights to be gleaned regarding the state of life in London during the post-war years and thereafter, as well as in New York City. But the chief attraction of this book is the personalities of the writer and her correspondents across the pond.
Too short, this can be easily read in a single sitting. Unforgettable.
Helene is a script writer from New York with a passion for rare books.
Frank is a book dealer from London. He works in a small book shop that specializes in out-of-print books.
When Helene comes across a catalogue for the store, she immediately writes to them with an order.
Frank replies and in his very proper British manner begins with 'Dear Madam'.
Helene, on the other hand, is outspoken with a witty sense of humour. She replies with the remark 'I hope madam does not mean over there what it does here'.
And so begins a beautiful exchange of lives that starts with a shared love of books and develops into so much more.
This is definitely a wonderful read especially for anyone like myself who loved writing and receiving letters before computers killed off the romance of it.
Helen Hanff was a passionate writer with such a deep love of literature that she made me want to return to school and do better in my studies! I highly recommend this book!
I don't often give books as gifts to adults because each person's reading preferences are so difficult to pin down, but since this book is short and a fairly quick read and such a gem, I shall be giving it as a gift.