Well, that was an hour well spent. I read this short memoir in a single sitting over breakfast, and it was a lovely way to start my day. This is a well-known book, and I don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been said. But just in case you are not familiar with 84, Charing Cross Road, it is a collection of letters between an American woman in New York, and an employee of a London antiquarian bookshop. Helene Hanff sent her first letter to Marks & Co. in October, 1949, politely requesting a few books she had been unable to find in the US. Marks & Co.’s representative Frank Doel replied with customary courtesy, and thus began 20 years of correspondence.
The letters between Helene and Frank deal mostly with books, but as time passes they share more details about themselves. Helene is a freelance scriptwriter, struggling to make a living and ever hopeful of traveling to England. Frank is married with two daughters. Initially his family must cope with food rationing and the aftermath of World War II. Grateful for Frank’s ability to find rare books, Helene regularly sends “care packages” to Marks & Co., filled with hard-to-find meat and eggs. Later on, Frank and his wife buy their first car, and their daughters reach adulthood.
In some ways it’s surprising the correspondence ever moved beyond the transactional. Helene displays all the usual American stereotypes: she is forward, informal, and somewhat demanding. Frank never rises to the bait, always maintaining his professional reserve. I smiled to myself, imagining the conversations Marks & Co. employees might have had about Helene. But over time, bonds formed and a genuine friendship developed between Helene & Frank. I wished so much that the two would have an opportunity to meet face-to-face, but it was not to be.
This is a wonderful book about a relationship formed through a shared love of books.