What an odd, quirky little book this is! I’m amazed I went this long without reading it, because I’ve often heard people talk about it and it seems to be a favourite of many. However, I apparently wasn’t paying close attention when they talked about it, becaus I was more than 2/3 of the way through this very short volume when I realized that the name of one of the “characters” writing letters in what I had taken to be an epistolary novel, was in fact the author’s name. Subsequent reading and research clarified for me that 84, Charing Cross Road is not, in fact, a novel, but is a real collection of letters between New York writer Helene Hanff, and the staff of a real bookstore at that address in London.
The letters begin in the late 1940s, when Hanff writes to a London bookstore for copies of rare books she can’t find locally. When bookseller Frank Doel begins finding treasures for her and shipping them across the Atlantic, she expresses her gratitude with gifts of food that are hard to find in London, still affected by postwar rationing. A genuine friendship by letter springs up between Haff, Doel and the other bookstore staff. Again and again over the next 20 years Hanff expresses her intention to come to London and meet the employees of her beloved bookstore, but she waits too long: Frank Doel dies in 1969 and the two transatlantic friends never get to meet.
It’s a simple, even slight story, made lively and vivid by the widely differing personalities of the two main characters (Helene and Frank are as stereotypically American and English as it’s possible to be) and the obvious love for books that radiates from every page. I know a film was made of the book though it’s very hard to imagine what it could contain: the book has almost nothing you could call “plot,” though it does have a great deal of character and charm. I’ll have to see the film sometime, but I imagine it’ll be one of those film travesties where they have to insert a whole lot of plot that’s not actually in the letters, in order to make a movie out of it (I’d be happy to be proven wrong, if anyone here turns out to have seen the movie and loved it).
One whimsical thought that occurred to me while reading this rather whimsical book: is a relationship like that of Helene Hanff and Frank Doel (and the rest of the staff at 84 Charing Cross Road) an impossibility in the internet age? After all, a modern-day Helene could pretty much order any book she wanted off Amazon or abebooks or some other online purveyor of rare books, without entering into any personal correspondence with the booksellers. That’s a loss. On the other hand, email and the internet offer so many opportunities for quirky friendships-by-correspondence to spring up between people who never meet in real life, that there are probably a lot more stories like this happening every day. One could only wish the correspondents might be as literate and as entertaining as Helene Hanff, Frank Doel, and company.