It was at a cousin’s wedding that an uncle gave me his copy of 84 Charing Cross Road with a crisp, “Read it. It’s good”. Now, I don’t know about you but long drawn-out weddings are not my cup of tea, and I always look for avenues to keep sane at such events. This book provided me with that perfect opportunity to
escape from cope with the wedding festivities.
So, I read the book while getting my mehendi done, while helping my cousin’s trousseau to be packed, in the middle of the night under torchlight, when I couldn’t bear the collective grunts and snores of so many aunts in the hall we were sleeping in, between the many wedding ceremonies, etc. By reading a few pages at a time, I managed to finish the 100-odd pages of the book over 3 days and return it to my uncle. I was just in time to congratulate the newlyweds after the wedding ceremony, and then run out to try to obtain my very own copy of the book.
So what is 84 Charing Cross Road (by Helene Hanff) all about? I found the book’s blurb—an extract from its review in the Daily Telegraph—tantalising.
This book is the very simple story of the love affair between Miss Helene Hanff of New York and Messrs Marks and Co, sellers of rare and second-hand books at 84 Charing Cross Road, London. It is unmitigated delight from cover to cover.
The book begins with a letter written by Helene Hanff to Marks & Co. on October 5, 1949, enquiring whether they could cater to her “antiquarian taste in books” by sending her “clean, second-hand copies” of the books she wanted. Thus, begins a series of letters spanning two decades, two continents, and two parties. Through these letters, we get to know about Helene Hanff’s taste in books, how a business in second-hand books is conducted, as well as a glimpse into life in New York and London over the 20-year period (1949–1969) that the correspondence between these two parties went on for.
Frank Doel, of Marks and Co., London, is the principal correspondent with Helene Hanff in her quest to obtain the second-hand books. Their writing styles complement each other so beautifully that every letter is a treat to read.
Helene is a frank, outspoken American with a very casual style of writing, and Frank Doel is a reticent Britisher, with a very formal writing style. Helene Hanff takes great delight in going out of her way to try to puncture that reserve.
For instance, in response to Frank Doel addressing her as “Madam” in his first letter to her, Helene writes:
I hope ‘madam’ doesn’t mean over there what it does here.
From the next letter onwards, Frank Doel addresses her as Miss Hanff ! Again, in a letter dated February 9, 1952, Helene tries to needle Frank Doel. She signs off by saying:
Miss Hanff to you (I’m helene only to my FRIENDS)
In his next letter, Frank Doel addresses her as Helene and says:
I quite agree it is time we dropped the ‘Miss’ when writing to you. I am not really as stand-offish as you may have been led to believe…
By the time the book ends, Frank Doel has become ‘Frankie’ for Helene, while the man himself starts signing off his letters “With love, Frank”.
Helene Hanff was an unusual woman, and in her own words “with a particular taste in books”. She preferred ordering her books all the way across the Atlantic from London instead of buying them in New York.
Why should I run all the way down to 17th St. to buy dirty, badly made books when I can buy clean beautifully made ones from you without leaving the typewriter? From where I sit, London is a lot closer than 17th St.
Helene was also an unusual customer, who took her relationship with Marks & Co. very seriously. When she found out that there was rationing in Britain to the extent of only “two ounces of meat per family per week and one egg per person per month”, she was appalled. She started sending gift parcels of meat and eggs to Marks and Co.; once she even arranged for 4 sets of nylons to be sent to the “girls” in the bookshop ! This gesture led to other employees of Marks & Co. to also correspond with her, though “Frankie” remained her main correspondent. Even Frank Doel’s wife, Nora, would write to Helene now and then. Marks & Co. also reciprocated by once sending Helene a heavily worked, hand-embroidered, Irish linen tablecloth, and at another time sending her a book on Elizabethan love poems. The responses to the gifts received are so beautiful:
[Frank Doel] I have to thank you for the very welcome Easter parcel which arrived safely yesterday. We were all delighted to see the tins and the box of shell eggs, and the rest of the staff joins me in thanking you for your very kind and generous thought of us.
[Cecily Farr, Marks & Co.] …Everyone was so grateful for the parcel. My little ones… were in Heaven–with the raisins and egg I was actually able to make them a cake.
[Helene] Thank you for the beautiful book. I’ve never owned a book before with pages edged all around with gold…I shall try very hard not to get gin and ashes all over it, it’s really much too fine for the likes of me.
In addition to all this, Helene constantly received invitations from her friends at Marks & Co. to visit London and stay with them. The genuine warmth of this relationship spilled on to Ginny and Ed, friends of Helene, who visited the shop in 1957. This is what they wrote back to Helene:
You might have warned us! We walked into your bookstore and said we were friends of yours and were nearly mobbed. Your Frank wanted to take us home for the weekend. Mr. Marks came from the back of the store just to shake hands with friends-of-Miss-Hanff, everybody in the place wanted to wine and dine us, we barely got out alive.
Sadly, by the time Helene could finally make it to London in June 1971, Frank Doel had been dead nearly 3 years, and Marks and Co. had closed shop. It is reportedly a wine shop today.
The volume that I have is a 2004 reprint, published by Timewarner Paperbacks. It also contains Helene Hanff’s second book, The Duchess of Bloomsbury, based on her visit to London in 1971 to promote 84 Charing Cross Road. Though The Duchess of Bloombury does carry Helene’s trademark wit and humour, Frank Doel’s presence is sorely missed.
A large part of the appeal of 84 Charing Cross Road lies in way Frank Doel’s measured, formal letters superbly contrast and complement Helene Hanff’s creative and informal letters.
[Helene] Will you please translate your prices hereafter? I don’t add too well in plain American, I don’t have a prayer of ever mastering bilingual arithmetic.
[Frank Doel’s response] … with an invoice listing the amount due in both pounds and dollars, and we hope you will be pleased with them.
Or this one:
[Frank Doel] Sometime ago you asked us for Newman’s Idea of a University. Would you be interested in a copy of the first edition?… Price $6.00
[Helene’s response] he has a first edition of Newman’s University for six bucks, do I want it, he asks innocently.
Yes, I want it…
If both Frank and Helene had been similar types of letter writers, the book would have been boring. The absence of Frank Doel to enhance and highlight Helene’s wit makes The Duchess of Bloomsbury boring.
Personally, 84 Charing Cross Road appeals to me at another level as well. In the book, Helene always wonders what England would be like, a wonder that I myself always had till I went there in 2008. She writes:
I live for the day when I step off the boat-train… A newspaper man I know, who was stationed in London during the war, says tourists go to London with preconceived notions, so they 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.’
Just as Helene discovers London to be the London of her imagination in The Duchess of Bloomsbury, I too found all the different types of ‘Londons’ and ‘Englands’ that I wanted to find—literary, historical, criminal, royal, Roman, etc.
84 Charing Cross Road is a very special book for me in another way too. It single-handedly changed my attitude towards second-hand books. Till the time I read this book, nothing would induce me to buy or use a second-hand book. When I read this passage from Helene’s letter to Frank Doel, I was lost.
I do love second-hand books that open to the page the previous owner read oftenest…I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long ago has called my attention to.
With words like these, how could I not start buying second-hand books and today, I own quite a few second-hand books. Ironically, I couldn’t find a second-hand copy of 84 Charing Cross Road, and had to settle for a new one. But when you go to buy the book, you’ll look for a second-hand book, won’t you? 🙂