“A book of letters” was the first internet search I did in preparation for the 2017 Reading Challenge. That’s how I found 84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff. It was a book I’d somehow never heard of. The synopsis said that it contained letters to and from a bookstore, which seems a good setup to the “book that’s been mentioned in another book” category, should I decide to continue on to the Advanced Challenge. Until I put the book on my “For Later” library shelf, I didn’t realize that it’s a work of nonfiction. Until I picked it up at the library, I didn’t realize what a slim book it is.
When I read Where’d you go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple, for last year’s challenge, I learned that a book of letters is called an “epistolary work”. I just thought I’d throw that in.
84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff, was first published in 1970. The copy I borrowed from the library is barely 97 pages long.
The book begins in October, 1949. Miss Helene Hanff, of New York City, a self-described “poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books”, writes a letter to Marks & Co., a used book seller, at 84, Charing Cross Road, London. She encloses a list of rare books she wishes to purchase for no more than $5.00 each. She doesn’t think she can find these books at Barnes & Noble.
Marks & Co. finds the books, at the requested price cap. They ship the books as they find them, along with invoices, which Helene pays. The book store is very accommodating to this somewhat eccentric customer. They honor her request to convert the invoices from pounds to dollars. Helene, meanwhile, refuses the book store’s request to pay with postal money orders, but instead sends cash by international mail. (She doesn’t want to walk all the way to Rockefeller Plaza, and wait in line, to buy a money order.)
Helene begins sending gifts of food to the staff of Marks & Co., after learning that post-war rationing is in effect in London. The employees of Marks & Co. begin writing personal letters to Helene. Helene Hanff becomes as much a pen pal as a customer.
The frequent exchange of letters lasts months, and then years. Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, of Marks & Co., become great long-distance friends.
There are constant invitations to Helene to come visit London someday.
The last letter is dated October, 1969. It gives permission to publish the letters in a book.
84, Charing Cross Road is a collection of letters, with no setup or explanations. Everything that we learn about Helene and Frank, the employees of Marks & Co., and their friends and family, is told through their correspondences. 84, Charing Cross Road is charming, funny, and heartbreaking. I absolutely loved it. It was an extremely quick read. As soon as I finished it, I wanted to immediately read it again.
I feel almost guilty that I picked such a short book to complete this Category.
- A book of letters
After I finished the book, I learned these things:
The “Co.” in Marks & Co. does not stand for “Company”. It stands for “Cohen”. Benjamin Marks and Mark Cohen had been selling books since 1904, and opened Marks & Co. in the 1920s. The shop moved several times, and in 1929, it settled into 84, Charing Cross Road. Marks & Co. closed in 1970. As of 2015, 84, Charing Cross Road is a McDonald’s fast food restaurant.
84, Charing Cross Road was adapted into stage and television plays. In 1987, it became a movie, starring Anne Bancroft as Helene Hanff and Anthony Hopkins as Frank Doel.