A blurb on the cover of my 1970 edition of 84, Charing Cross Road, from the Saturday Review, calls it “a gorgeous little book about books.”
It is a gorgeous little book, the nonfiction account, told through letters, of an American woman’s long-distance friendship with the sellers at an antiquarian bookshop in London, beginning just after World War II. Helene Hanff was a writer from New York who initially wrote to the shop in 1949 after seeing their ad in the Saturday Review of Literature. She sent them a list of the books she most hoped to find (her “most pressing problems,” which included Hazlitt’s Selected Essays and a collection of Leigh Hunt’s) and received a polite reply that they would be sending her two of them and had begun looking for the others. She wrote back, immediately addressing the very polite British bookseller, Frank Doel (pronounced Noel), in a teasing way (“I hope madam doesn’t mean over there what it does here”), sometimes using ALL CAPS on her typewriter. It’s obvious she couldn’t help herself, New Yorker that she was. She wanted to bring out his more human side, and in time he shared it.
Helene keeps writing, looking for more books, and at some point she finds out from the British boyfriend of her young neighbor just how severe the food rations in the UK were at that time: 2 ounces of meat per family per month, 1 egg per person per month, he told her, and this was after the war had ended! Shocked, she sends them food she chose from the catalog of a British company that imports things from Denmark, which is how the boyfriend has been sending his mother gifts of food. This is the beginning of the real warmth between Helene and Frank et al, though a true friendship had started—and continued, as she kept asking them to try to find “dear goofy John Henry” and some love poems, but “No Keats or Shelley, send me some poets who can make love without slobbering”—over the love of books, particularly old ones.
“It’s against my principles to buy a book I haven’t read, it’s like buying a dress you haven’t tried on…” Helene reveals, which I found to be a very interesting thing to say. Later, she writes:
I houseclean my books every spring and throw out those I’m never going to read again like I throw out clothes I’m never going to wear again. It shocks everybody. My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.
So yes, this is a book about books, and about reading. It’s also about the romance of bookstores, and the sweet, surprising communities that can form around them. 84, Charing Cross Road is interesting to contemporary readers, too, because it contains so many anecdotal reminders of just how different things were before the internet, and before air travel was as inexpensive and commonplace as it is today. When Helene first wrote to Marks & Co., the UK, still reeling from the war, seemed a very different and far away place. Over the 20 years of their correspondence, we see the gap between the UK and the US begin to close. By the 60s, Frank’s letters report on the hordes of tourists who come through London each summer, many of them Americans making a “pilgrimage” to Carnaby Street. “…I must say I rather like the Beatles. If the fans just wouldn’t scream so.”
Besides all that, though, this is a book about friendship—friendship of a certain, long-distance, partly-imaginary kind. In Helene’s letters to her “friends at 84, Charing Cross Road” she sometimes imagines out loud what the cramped, dusty, Dickensian bookstall must look like. She romanticizes them like crazy, but invites them to do the same to her, making herself into a charming caricature of the brash New Yorker. But Helene also talks about visiting them one day, and seems to mean it. Frank (as well as his wife Nora, in separate letters) and two of the women who work at the bookshop all invite her many times to come visit them, each offering to put her up in their flat or house for as long as she liked.
Year after year, she didn’t go. Money was always a concern. Though she had it pretty good in comparison to the deprivation the English people were still dealing with, she was living the writer’s life (a “freelancer’s” life, we’d say today), and had an unsteady income. Sometimes someone would like her idea for a TV show and offer to pay her a bundle for the script, but other times, she’d work for months on plays that no one wanted to produce. During the period that she was making good money writing murder mysteries for the TV series Ellery Queen, Helene entertained the idea of going to London for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. But then she needed to pay for a lot of expensive dental work, and she didn’t make the trip.
She was there in spirit, though. I love thinking of Helene “crawl[ing] out of bed before dawn on Coronation Day to attend the ceremony by radio…thinking of you all” because that’s exactly the kind of thing I would do. The idea of setting aside solitary time to “be with” someone else in my thoughts appeals to me deeply, loner that I am. Helene Hanff never married, and when I picture the single-lady’s apartment she describes in her letters, with its battered furniture and steady supply of coffee and books (and cigarettes and gin drinks as well, Helene admits; me too), I’m really picturing my own life, the one I had for years before I was married, and all its solitary pleasures.
Such as letter writing. I have a number of pen-pals, maybe around 20 people who I write letters to regularly, some of them for years now. I collect new pen-pals on a regular basis, too, usually through zines. Someone I’ll meet at a zine fair (or who I’ve sold my zines to, or traded mine for theirs) will write me a letter, and then we’re off and running! When I lived alone, sending and receiving these letters constituted a major part of my social life. Most of it, some years, if I’m honest. I have learned that there is a strong similarity between these kinds of friendships and the kinship you can find in books. A human connection is made, in a very real way, but from a distance, and in solitude. It’s a certain kind of person who seeks out this kind of connection—and who sometimes, at least in some ways, prefers it to time spent in another person’s company. I have been this kind of person; I bet a lot of writers have. It has something to do with the life of the imagination, for sure, but it’s a self-protective thing too. You can have a very close bond with a long-distance friend and still feel safe, intact, yourself.
By 1956, Helene announces that she’s been “socking money” away in a savings account, and if “TV keeps feeding [her]” she’ll make a trip to England the next summer. But then her landlord sells the building and she gets evicted from her apartment. She decides to buy one in a new building that hasn’t been constructed yet, and spends all her “England money” on the place and new furniture for it.
The eviction and the dental work were real, unavoidable drains on Helene’s finances, and besides that, I’m aware that in the 1950s, the average middle class person didn’t hop on planes and take trips whenever they felt like it. But it seemed clear to me, reading Helene’s letters, that she was always reticent about traveling to England, that it was something she liked to think and talk about, but maybe never took that seriously as a plan. You get the feeling—and in one letter, to an American friend, she admits to this possibility—she’d rather keep on dreaming about her English friends than meet them in person and have the fantasy spoiled.
SPEAKING OF SPOILED, THE REST OF THIS ESSAY GIVES AWAY THE BOOK’S ENDING. READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK!
In the end, Helene never makes the trip she talked about so much. In October of 1969 she receives a letter from Frank, writing animatedly about tourists and Jane Austen and plans for Christmas (“we are all very much alive and kicking,” he begins), and less than three months later she receives one from the secretary at Marks & Co., who has had to write to tell her that Frank died. His appendix ruptured, which gave him the peritonitis that killed him a week later. Anyone who reads the book would find this terribly sad, and I certainly did. Joe caught me crying on the couch after I finished it, as he has many times after I’ve put down a good, touching book.
But I’m still trying to decide how I feel about this as an ending to the story. The thing is, I kept wanting Helene and her English friends to meet in person, even though I knew all along that they wouldn’t. (I’ve seen the movie, with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, in which they DO meet, and later read about how that never really happened. The movie, incidentally, is also wonderful.) What I don’t understand is why I was wishing for this. Have I lost my capacity for wistfulness? I used to be comprised almost entirely of wist. And anyway, that’s the point of this book. You’re supposed to read it and feel that sense of longing for something that can never be. You’re supposed to enjoy feeling that feeling. It’s like nostalgia—the kind of melancholy that feels good.
I guess what surprises me is that I don’t like that idea as much as I have in the past. I don’t have much capacity these days for enjoying the space between aloneness and closeness, for feeling the pleasure of that friction. I don’t want to want things and not get them. I want the people I love to be with me, and to never lose them. I want to do the things I want to do soon, and not risk missing out on them. I want life to be vibrant, and I want it not to end.
Maybe it’s because everything feels more immediate these days, with every piece of news sounding so dire. Bad people making bad plans. Everyone I know is upset, and at times it seems clear to me that we’re standing on the edge of something huge and dangerous. Like De La Soul sang back in 1996, “Stakes is high.”
I guess I could find it in myself to feel wistful and nostalgic for the times in my life when the world felt LESS scary, come to think of it, but feelings like that seem like luxuries now, and I ought to ration them out.