84, Charing Cross Road

"I'm almost afraid to handle such soft vellum and heavy cream-colored pages. Being used to the dead-white paper and stiff cardboardy covers of American books, I never knew a book could be such a joy to the touch." ~Helene Hanff, 84, Charing Cross Road

Quite candidly, I didn’t get the big idea.

A slim volume with an address for a title. (Albeit a London, address, lending a smidge of credibility.) Nondescript, by an American lady I had never heard of.

And yet, Mrs. Downs couldn’t keep it in the store. She was constantly tracking down first editions for people and they were downright giddy to receive them.

I never cared much for books of letters, preferring the flowery prose of my Victorian novels and classics. And certainly not a book of letters published in the unappealing epoch of the 1970s.

It just wasn’t me. I smiled at the enthusiasm of Mrs. Downs and her customers. And I always thought of it tenderly in connection with her. But not tenderly enough to tempt me.

And then I read it.

"Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND...i swear i don't know how that shop keeps going." ~H.H.

Marooned at home one day with a fever and not quite up to the thundering word-craft of Wuthering Heights on my bedside table, I dipped into a paperback version of 84, Charing Cross Road that I had picked up along the way in memory of my beloved Mrs. Downs. Philip came home a few hours later to find me sobbing into my pillow over it. He took it from me and read it in one sitting, dashing the tears from his eyes when he was done.

I saw now, as an adult, what I had been unprepared to see as a girl. I understood why Mrs. Downs and her compatriots loved this little book with such an undying loyalty. It was her story, and that of countless booksellers and booklovers the world over. It was no wonder that upon its publication it became an instant best-seller, going on to be produced as a play and later a major motion picture starring Anne Bancroft and the inimitable Anthony Hopkins.

84 Charing Cross Road is the correspondence between a brassy American writer and a gentlemanly English bookseller. Spanning two decades, it begins in the post-war days of the 1940s when English books were not only difficult to find in the States, they were prohibitively expensive. Especially for a poor free-lance writer and script reader living in New York City. A chance encounter with an ad in The Saturday Review prompted the first letter, an endearingly-blunt request with a five dollar bill enclosed. The friendship that bloomed almost instantly between Miss Hanff in her brownstone and Mr. Frank Doel in his London shop expanded to include fellow employees and even Frank’s wife, Nora. If Helene’s effusive camaraderie is disarming to the Brits, their loveliness of manner and graciousness begets a family-like devotion in her own heart.

For twenty years the letters—and books—fly back and forth across The Pond. And in that time one of the most heart-warming accounts of human friendship and kindness unfolds. There is an almost spiritual quality to the giving and the receiving that transpires, the careful love of old books and the tending of relationships. Our modern world seems to have very little time for such things anymore.

"Just a note to let you know that your gift parcel arrived safely today and the contents have been shared out between the staff..." ~F.P.D.

We watched the movie again last night, for the umpteenth time. It’s an absolutely brilliant adaptation, and for all 100 minutes of it the tears poured down my face in constant succession. This story has had my heart for so long—it conjures Mrs. Downs and the days working in her shop; my own experience with English bookstores and the cherished volumes I’ve carted home over the years; the passion my husband and I share for a lovely binding and a gilt-edged page and a smooth leather cover.

But I was suddenly encountering it on a completely different level. I’ve always identified with Helene, unwrapping her English treasures in her dingy apartment and running her hands over them with a lingering reverence. But this time I was the Frank in the story. The Mrs. Downs. The procurer and provider of the treasures. I saw the joy flicker over his face as he came across a title he knew she would love and the somewhat abashed happiness with which he received her overtures of friendship. I even got choked up over the scene of a shop girl wrapping up Helene’s first shipment of books.

I have seen the same kind of sympathy spring up right here in my own little shop, the same joy of kindred kindness extended to me in your notes, the heartfelt revelations of the faces behind the orders, the emails telling me that the packages have arrived safely at their new homes. I have been overwhelmed and humbled by your response and your joy. Thank you, kind friends.

There’s nothing quite like the love of books for the beginning of a friendship, is there?

19 Responses to “84, Charing Cross Road”

  1. Gretchen says:

    I just put the book on hold at my library. And I just might have to track down the movie, too… Because there’s nothing like a book and movie recommendation from Lanier! 😉

  2. Rebecca says:

    I do have a fondness for epistolary novels, owing I suppose to my longstanding love affair with letters. And I do love 84; it is almost a rival for those favorite Victorian tomes! But the book is better than the movie, methinks.

  3. Oh, how I love that book (of course, you probably know who would love it…). I have given away a couple of copies so I was thrilled to find both 84, Charing Cross Road and the SEQUEL called The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street at either a library sale or thrift shop… they all begin to run together in my mind as I am always on the lookout for books.

    At the time, I had just found out there was a sequel. Which, I am embarrassed to admit, I have not read. It is one of those instances where I first want to Re-read “Charing” and then read “Duchess”, most probably in the middle of winter.

    I have only found one other book which was in the form of letters that I adored (well, besides The Screwtape Letters but they don’t count) and that’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. I had heard a lot about it online so I put it on hold at the library and about six or seven months later (or so it seemed) my turn came to take the book home and it was love at first read. Just as with Charing Rd., you forget the book is being written in letters!

    • Gretchen says:

      I got 84, Charing Cross Road from the library and read it immediately–loved it! Now I have two more to add to my to find and read list… It looks like the Guernsey Literary book is in great demand at my library, as well, but it’s on my hold list! 🙂

  4. Josh says:

    This is lovely! A book recommendation and movie recommendation in one post! I look forward to enjoying them both! 🙂

  5. Jessica says:

    Sounds like a lovely book…definitely adding it to the “to read” and “buy from Lanier” lists. 🙂

    “There’s nothing quite like the love of books for the beginning of a friendship, is there?”

    That is so very true. 🙂

  6. Susan says:

    I want to say an “amen” to the above recommendation for the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – it was a wonderful read and made me study up on that little island’s history during World War II. Now I must track down a copy of 84 Charing Cross Road. Thanks for the tip.

  7. Jodi Lenz says:

    I’ve been amiss in letting you know I received my package. Beautifully wrapped, I might add! Things have been difficult over here with extended family. Mike and I are quite weary; please pray for us. On a happier note, I LOVE 84 CHARING CROSS – the movie! Must read the book someday.

  8. ellbee says:

    After reading your post, I checked Netflix in the evening to see if they had the film version of 84, Charing Cross Road, and was pleasantly surprised to see it was available as an “instant view”! It was very enjoyable. Now I will have to read the book as well.

    As for the delivery of my book package, I excitedly received the tidy bundle (on my birthday!) and my husband and I began reading Mr. Grayson’s book together in the evenings. We think he’s a splendid writer and the content, most heart-warming!

  9. Claudia Adams says:

    Oh what dear memories this post brings to mind. I remember the first time I saw the movie… and I can still hear the dear little elderly man in the shop being so pleased with his “little pots of tea…”. Many a meal here ends with Harris commenting that the meal was “very nice…very tasty.” Thank you for reminding me of this dear little tome. I have just brought my copy (from Mrs. Downs shop) out of the cabinet for a read…when I finish my new Elizabeth Goudge… alas with a tear or two for the memory of our precious friend and mentor…

  10. Sharon says:

    Such lovely offerings in your on-line bookshop. I have always preferred ‘second-hand” book stores to the ones offering only stiff and shiny new volumes.
    Many of the titles you have on offer are ones I either own or have read–with a few titles by favorite authors that I haven’t explored.
    I began reading Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in January when I was given a copy by a dear friend.
    The book disappeared into the many boxes packed for our move across country, but I resurrected it last night and started all over.
    Hopefully I’m not repeating myself in suggesting that you might enjoy some of the works–fiction and non-fiction–of Gladys Hasty Carrol. She grew up in South Berwick, Maine in the same area as Sarah Orne Jewitt.
    The book compiled from her letters and journals while a student at Bates College is especailly fresh and delightful.
    Here is a newly discovered website about her family and her work. I was introduced to her when, as a teen, I was given a spare copy of her first novel, “As The Earth Turns.” It is still one of my favorite books.
    http://www.dunnybrook.org/homepage/Gladys_Hasty_Carroll.html

  11. Juli Aaron says:

    I checked “84..” out of the library today and devoured the whole thing this evening. Please keep those delicious book reviews coming. I loved it!

    Juli

  12. This was the first book I read this year, thanks to a special Christmas gift! 🙂

    In this case, I really feel like watching the film added to the enjoyment of the book — similar to how seeing Gregory Peck bring Atticus Finch to life on the screen makes Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird all the more rich.

    I loved the movie, as it allowed me to “travel” to England from the couch of my home. I’m so thankful you shared the story behind it!

  13. Lara says:

    Yes–I completely agree! I was recommended this book and movie several years ago now, by a dear friend, and loved them both.

    Lanier–so glad to have found a kindred spirit who is also a book seller!

    Planning my next purchase from the list you gave me…. 🙂

    L

  14. Sara says:

    I have always loved 84, Charing Cross Road and the follow up The Dutchess of Bloomsbury Street, even more so after seeing the movie, and even more so again now that I can do Google Street View on the locations on both sides of the pond and look everything over. I just now put a hold on The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, which should be ready in a day or two, so looking forward to that.

    But I must recommend something very special for all lovers of 84, Charing Cross Road… I found a reading of it by a couple of Seattle book sellers on YouTube – it’s in six parts, so takes about an hour to listen to. Really special, they do a wonderful job. Streaming links at mentadd.com/84 you will LOVE IT! (Have tissues ready!!)

  15. […] 84, Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff said that people going to England find exactly what they go looking […]

  16. […] have books and wartime in common.  The one is a correspondence between a bookstore employee in London and a book lover in New York.  The other includes correspondence between an English author, a London publisher, and inhabits of […]

  17. […] What a delight!  Enjoying it perhaps even more than 84, Charing Cross Road, comments on Lanier’s review of which pointed me to the Guernsey Society.  In the meantime, I’m also reading a more serious […]

  18. […] Examples: “More Heat, More Butter, More Salt” a review of Bread & Wine from Natasha and a review of 84 Charing Cross Road from Lanier […]

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