When we got to talking about film adaptations yesterday, I knew today's Retro Friday post would have to be about one book, and one book only--84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. I owe the discovery of this wonderful book to DH, before he was DH, in fact. He gave the movie to me for my birthday--the first birthday I had after we started dating. Along with the Old Friends Simon & Garfunkel box set and a kiss. At the time we were living in different cities and meeting up somewhere in the middle for our "dates." So I drove home that night and watched the movie all by myself. I cried. Twice. I laughed and laughed and laughed. And I went out and bought the book immediately. I was on my way to London for a study abroad program and so it was a going away gift of sorts. He's particularly good with gifts, as you can tell. It is without a doubt my very favorite memoir and the movie adaptation starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins is pretty much my favorite movie of all time. Just another of those little things that my man brought to my life that I might never have found without him.
84, Charing Cross Road tells the true story of Helene Hanff and Frank Doell. Helene is a loudmouth, eccentric, struggling writer from New York. Frank is a quiet, reserved, always proper bookseller from London. In a fit of rage at being unable to find the vintage editions of classic books she loves in New York, Helene drafts a letter to Marks & Co.--an antiquarian bookshop located at 84, Charing Cross Rd. The first letter reads as follows:
Gentlemen:Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books. The phrase "antiquarian booksellers" scares me somewhat, as I equate "antique" with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or in Barnes and Noble's grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies.I enclose a list of my most pressing problems. If you have clean secondhand copies of any of the books on the list, for no more than $5.00 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?Very truly yours,Helene Hanff(Miss) Helene Hanff
And that is how this exquisite little gem of bibliophilia begins. Frank Doell answers Miss Hanff's letter on behalf of Marks & Co., signing his letter FPD. Over the course of twenty years, these two book lovers exchange letters and, in the process, become fast friends. Though they never actually meet, their friendship spans years, nationalities, personalities, and an ocean.
It's hard for me to express how much I love this collection of letters. I'm always wanting to talk about it with other readers but know few outside my immediate family who've heard of it let alone read it. Which is sad as, when I think about books about books and book lovers, I have a difficult time coming up with a better, more moving and intensely personal story. It doesn't hurt that I'm extremely tactile when it comes to my love of books. I adore owning multiple editions, particularly old, used, loved copies picked up in used bookshops around the world. The day I walked into Hay-on-Wye I promptly broke out into a cold sweat at the sheer number of "antiquarian booksellers" within a one-mile radius. And in this book, Helene Hanff's love for the physical books themselves, the words within, and British literature especially just suffuses this reader with joy and a beautiful sense of camaraderie. I'll close with one of my favorite passages and the hope that, if you haven't picked 84, Charing Cross Road up yet, you will. And come back and tell me how it was.
Please write and tell me about London, I live for the day when I step off the boat-train and feel its dirty sidewalks under my feet. I want to walk up Berkeley Square and down Wimpole Street and stand in St. Paul's where John Donne preached and sit on the step Elizabeth sat on when she refused to enter the Tower, and like that. A newspaper man I know, who was stationed in London during the war, says tourists go to England with preconceived notions, so they always find exactly what they go looking for. I told him I'd go looking for the England of English literature, and he said:"Then it's there."