Second-hand books

On Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road

Charing Cross Road in the centre of London used to be a street of booksellers. I can remember them vividly: walking up from Trafalgar Square and St. Martin’s Place you had one after another on the right-hand side. My favourite destination was the Penguin bookshop where I could get practically any book I was looking for. I recall buying Carlos Baker’s biography of Ernest Hemingway there, just out, an important piece in my nascent library at the time. Generally, however, the street was renowned for its antiquarian bookshops where connoisseurs went searching for rare and expensive editions.

This is the place the American author Helene Hanff celebrates in her – almost – eponymous 1970 book 84 Charing Cross Road. It consists of letters exchanged between herself and Marks & Co., antiquarian booksellers, or rather: their staff, mainly Mr. Frank Doel, chief buyer. The correspondence, beginning in 1949, soon strays into fields other than books and literature; this is how some kind of story develops. It only comes to an end with the sudden death of Mr. Doel in 1969.

The sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, also published in my edition, is a diary describing the author’s first visit to London – postponed for various reasons until 1971. Now she is invited to help launch her own book in England; she’s become something of a celebrity author, much to her own surprise, and people seem to be falling over themselves to invite her for dinner or show her around London and the surrounding country.

Like so many success stories culminating in fame, it comes as something of a let-down. While the narrator was still an ordinary struggling individual in Manhattan, her chronicle was so much more engaging and endearing. But this is, of course, a minor quibble. Without doubt Mrs. Hanff’s letters and diaries make a pleasant read, and up to a point they may even count as testimony to a bygone era.

By the time she is coming to sign her book, Marks & Co. is standing empty; today, there’s nothing left but a plaque on a wall to mark the scene. There are a handful of booksellers left in Charing Cross Road, but they certainly do not define the character of the street. The only good news may be that up the road, beyond Cambridge Circus, Foyles has moved into new premises: much more spacious, better lit and better organized. In a way, it could be considered the successor to Dillons, the former university bookshop on Gower Street, now a Waterstone’s branch. (Nothing wrong with that – but just not the same, is it?)

Let me add that I obtained my copy of 84 Charing Cross Road from a second-hand bookshop – where else? Not in Charing Cross Road, it has to be admitted, but from Scoobs at the rear of The Brunswick in Bloomsbury (not far from Russell Square tube station – in case a bookworm should want directions).

Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road (London: Futura, 1976). – The two parts of this edition were first published in 1970 and 1973, respectively.

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