This year marks the 51st anniversary of the publication of what may be the most unlikely New York Times bestseller ever: Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road. It is not even a book in the conventional sense, but rather a collection of letters exchanged by Ms Hanff and London bookseller Frank Doel between 1949 and 1969. The fact that it is such a slim volume (only 96 pages) makes its runaway success in 1970 even more amazing.
But 84, Charing Cross Road is a perfect example of why you can’t judge a book by its cover, its length, or the unorthodox nature of its content. Ultimately what makes the book work is what makes any book work, whether fiction or nonfiction: the relationships between the characters. And for readers today, the ways the relationships develop are not simply interesting in themselves but also because of how they happen.
In an age of instant gratification, Twitter and Facebook world, the often leisurely pace of the letters between Helene and Frank (and later other store employees) are a window into an era we will sadly never see again.
Setting the scene
The correspondence begins in 1949 as Ms Hanff is searching for clean copies of used books she is unable to find near her home in New York City. This alone will seem strange to readers accustomed to using the Internet to find any book ever published. Still, before the advent of Amazon, books that went out of print could only be found through used and antiquarian booksellers, who themselves had to conduct exhaustive and time-consuming searches.
She writes to London booksellers Marks & Co. requesting certain titles she cannot locate and thus begins the 20 years of correspondence that makes up the book.
Helene Hanff was a prolific writer during her life, but her letters in 84, Charing Cross Road prove that she may have missed her true calling as a stand-up comic. Many of her letters are laugh-out-loud funny, made more so when juxtaposed with Frank Doel’s typically proper and reserved British responses. Their exchange over a mix-up regarding a Latin New Testament is priceless, especially given that Hanff was Jewish.
How a book about books still endures
The books she orders are a veritable Master class in Literature, ranging from Chaucer to Virginia Woolf to Jane Austen. A lover of books could do worse than simply reading all of the titles mentioned in Hanff and Doel’s correspondence.
But had this just been an exchange of book orders and invoices, it would not have grabbed the public’s imagination in such a way that the book is still loved 50 years later, as well as having been adapted into both a play and a film. Helene goes beyond being a simple customer, becoming involved in the lives of the store’s staff, celebrating their joys, mourning their losses, and caring for their physical needs in a very real way.
After World War II, England was subject to severe rationing that lasted for many years. Upon learning that her new friends couldn’t get things like meat or real eggs, she began sending regular food parcels to them, especially during holidays.
One such parcel caused her to send a panicked follow-up letter: she had sent a ham before realizing that the shop owners were Jewish and offered to “rush over a tongue.” The staff (six in all) respond by sending her photos of their families, first-edition books, and teaching her how to make Yorkshire Pudding. Throughout this two-decade friendship, she planned to travel to London to meet everyone in person, yet seemed always to be put off by some unexpected event.
84, Charing Cross Road is at its core a book about lovers of books and is at the same time one of the funniest and most touching books you’ll ever read.
Those who have read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a novel comprised of only letters between the characters, will see how much that best-seller owes 84, Charing Cross Road. I am thankful their correspondence came at a time when people both wrote and kept letters; such a book would likely never have been possible in the era of texts and e-mail, and that would have been a tremendous loss.
Words by Paul Combs