In 1949, scriptwriter Helene Hanff began sending requests to secondhand London bookseller Marks & Co. to fill some of the more eclectic gaps in her non-fiction collection. After all, what better place to get classic British literature than London? Though the requests initially start out formal, it does not take long for Helene’s personality to shine through her letters- and for her to break down the formality in Frank’s. Ultimately, she forms correspondences not just with Frank, but with other booksellers on staff, and even Frank’s wife and next door neighbor. 84, Charing Cross Road is a collection of the letters sent between Helene and her overseas correspondents over the course of twenty years.
84, Charing Cross Road is one of those books that has been on my radar for years- probably since I first developed a fascination with British literature back in the 2002-2003 era. I was browsing the bookstore looking for a quick read a few weeks ago, and it seemed it was finally time for me to sit down and read this book. And I am SO glad I finally did. Helene was a crackup. She reminded me of those little old ladies that say whatever comes to mind, throwing propriety out the window. She became comfortable with Frank almost immediately, teasing him endlessly. As she tells Cecily, another bookseller: “Poor Frank, I give him such a hard time, I’m always bawling him out for something. I’m only teasing, but I know he’ll take me seriously. I keep trying to puncture that proper British reserve, if he gets ulcers I did it.”
Frank, for his part, tried as hard as he could to maintain some professionalism and decorum. However, Helene ultimately wears him down, and in doing so, opens up the opportunity to get to know him in a personal capacity, going so far as to begin a correspondence with his wife and elderly next door neighbor. For me, the exchange that truly solidified their friendship was the moment where Helene told Frank to send his wife, Nora, and their daughters to church every Sunday for a month “to pray for the continued health and strength of the messrs. gilliam, reese, snider, campanella, robinson, hodges, furillo, podres, newcombe and labine, collectively known as The Brooklyn Dodgers. If they lose this World Series I shall Do Myself In and then where will you be?” Frank, for his part, says he will do so if she will in turn cheer for the Tottenham Hotspurs Football Club. What better way to solidify a friendship than to mutually cheer for a friend’s team?
Though Helene’s interactions with Frank are the highlight of the collection, some of the best lines in the book come from her letters and reactions to other booksellers at Marks & Co. When hearing that Megan, another of her correspondents, is planning to move to South Africa, Helene wastes no time in telling Frank, “WILL YOU TELL MEGAN WELLS SHE IS OUT OF HER COTTONPICKING MIND? if she’s that bored with civilization why doesn’t she just move to a siberian salt mine?” However, it’s clear she does so with affection, and that she considers Megan, Cecily, and the others to be friends as much as she considers Frank a friend.
One of the things I appreciated the most about this book is that it shows how powerful genuine friendship can be. Though it began as a business relationship and the business aspects of the relationship continued throughout the twenty years, the personal relationship became rather selfless, especially on Helene’s part. Because many basic necessities were rationed even after the war in England, Helene sent gifts of meat and eggs whenever she could, simply because she had the capacity and ability to do so. And the gifts were appreciated by Frank, his coworkers, and his family. After one such gift, three of Frank’s coworkers made sure to respond so that she would know the gifts were appreciated. In that way, the book made me rather wistful. Too often, it feels like no one is genuinely grateful anymore, or people feel like their good deeds or gifts should be reciprocated quid pro quo. It was nice to see people genuinely trying to do something nice for people that mattered to them.
But enough of my being sidetracked by maudlin thoughts…
This book has catapulted it’s way to the top of my favorites list, and I can imagine it will be quite dog-eared when all is said and done. If you haven’t read it, you should.