London's A Lot Closer than 17th Street

84, Charing Cross Road

I personally can't think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.

On October 5, 1949, New York-based writer Helene Hanff wrote the Marks & Co bookstore in London, searching for a list of out-of-print books. A short while later, bookseller Frank Doel answered her. The two soon develop a pen pal friendship, bantering over books and the state of their respective countries in the post-war world. Over the course of many letters, books, and years, Frank and Helene build a connection closer than many in-person friends, wondering if they'll ever meet.

84, Charing Cross Road. By Helene Hanff. Penguin Books. 1990. Paperback.

How did I get the book?

I discovered this book when browsing Hatchards (another classic London bookshop) last winter. Even though it’s quite thin, I had promised myself I wasn’t going to buy a ton of books to weigh down my suitcase, so I came back stateside and ordered a copy.

You can purchase the book for yourself here and support independent bookstores!

What did I think?

Helene is the star of this story, her letters giving the reader a real look into the fabulous brain of someone who despite only having three bookshelves seems to be spending most of her time doing nothing but admiring books. “I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins,” she writes. “I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.” Despite Helene’s worry that “the phrase 'antiquarian booksellers'” means the books sold at Marks & Co. are expensive, she soon falls into a rhythm when writing to Frank, believing that he understands what she means when she says that she won’t buy a book she hasn’t read because it would be the same as “buying a dress you haven't tried on,” or that she’s worried her library card will be revoked from leaving margin notes, “sprinkl[ing] pale pencil marks…pointing out the best passages to some booklover yet unborn.” And Frank does, charmed by her fascination with each of the titles that he manages to locate and send. “It keeps falling open at the most delightful places as the ghost of its former owner points me to things I've never read before,” Helene tells him of one book. “What a weird world we live in when so beautiful a thing can be owned for life.” It all makes me feel like I need to talk to my shelves a bit more romantically.

The letters also reveal something about Helene’s taste in books; for instance, her preference for “poets who can make love without slobbering.” She is almost exclusively interested in reading nonfiction. “I never can get interested in things that didn't happen to people who never lived,” she writes Frank. “It's just stories, I don't like stories.” Part of this might be a reflection of the post-war world in which they are living, a world that—much like 2020 felt—is filled with things happening all of the time with no time to focus on anything but realness. This reality pops into the corners of Frank and Helene’s letters, sometimes just in a passing statement of how Helene wishes the Brooklyn Dodgers might win the World Series or Frank’s lamenting the sad state of Tottenham Hotspur (though as a fan of the latter team, that could also be said today). Most of this world-building comes out of Frank’s mentions of England, from his tales of rationing and hoping “if Churchill and Company get in…it will cheer everyone up immensely” to later marking “the pilgrimage to Carnaby Street,” admitting, “I must say I rather like the Beatles. If the fans just wouldn't scream so.” Much of Helene’s response in the early days of their communication is to send the bookshop holiday packages full of hard to acquire goods, though this later grows to include things specifically for Frank’s wife and daughters.

The juxtaposition of Helene’s intimate consideration for Frank’s world with the fact she never actually comes to visit Marks & Co. is rather curious. Helene imagines the experience of being in the shop often throughout the letters. “I'm gonna climb up that Victorian book ladder and disturb the dust on the top shelves and everybody's decorum,” she teases Frank. “I write…the most outrageous letters from a safe 3,000 miles away. I'll probably walk in there one day and walk right out again without telling them who I am.” However, it is only through a friend of Helene’s living in London that she gets to experience the store, in another letter: “You smell the shop before you see it, it's a lovely smell, I can't articulate it easily, but it combines must and dust and age, and walls of wood and floors of wood.” Part of me wondered if the distance is what allowed for the intimacy of Frank and Helene’s relationship to flourish, for them to stop calling one another “Gentleman” and “Madame” in their notes, for Frank to stop caring about the protocol for filing them away and to allow himself to relish in Helene’s words. In one exchange, Helene goes as far as to say, “You see how it is, frankie, you're the only soul alive who understands me,” while worrying in another that he has left the shop without telling her. This bond leads to Frank’s wife admitting to Helene, “At times I don't mind telling you I was very jealous of you, as Frank so enjoyed your letters and they or some were so like his sense of humour. Also I envied your writing ability.” I have to admit, I was a little envious, too.

Final Verdict?

🌟 3.75/5 — Very Good

Hanff’s ability to convey tone in her letter writing is terrific, frankly and worth taking note of in this age where email and text messages have become even more important than they were before. The way she writes “CERTainly” or “SENSible” so a reader can hear her voice is lovely, or how she shows her astonishment at never having been sent the Marks & Co. catalog by inquiring about it ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS. It’s also lovely to see how the formality drops between the two of them as Frank begins to sign his letters “Yours faithfully” and “Faithfully yours.” One of my favorite moments is in a wild, freestyle note that Helene writes to Frank on New Year’s, or as she puts it, “sunday night and a hell of a way to start 1960,” which she signs, “yrs, h. hffffffffffff,” a charming sort of drunk text before its time.

What frustrated me, however, was not knowing what happens in the space between the letters, especially when those gaps span years. It’s the question, really, I have of any long-term relationship in books. It’s all charming in the beginning when Helene and Frank are first opening up to each other, discussing the details of their lives, sending holiday presents, but after this first year of magic, when the space between the letters becomes months, even years, I was desperate to know how often they were on each other’s minds. Did Helene miss Frank as much as I did? Did Frank ever look up from his filing and wonder what Helene was up to across the ocean? It breaks my heart further when Helene writes, “Maybe it's just as well I never got there. I dreamed about it so many years. I used to go to English movies just to look at the streets...I owe it so much.” Maybe I’m making more out of it than it is, or maybe I just really need to believe in the power of friendship.

Beyond the book.

The book inspired a 1987 film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins as Helene and Frank. It’s rather charming to see their correspondence come to life with these lively actors, like in this scene where Helene is reading a letter from Frank about his book buying and we see his actual journey across the countryside. It’s the kind of heartwarming entertainment we need right now. The story has also been adapted for television, theatre, and radio.

In case you were wondering, the store is no longer open, unfortunately. It was a music shop in the early 1990s, followed by other retail outlets and restaurants. Now part of a McDonald’s occupies the space (literally paving paradise to put up a parking lot) with a plaque denoting the story of the bookshop. Hanff’s former apartment on building in New York also has a plaque.

See you again soon!

Rachel x