I read 84 Charing Cross Road years ago and though I couldn’t remember much detail about it, it’s always lodged in my mind as one of those delightful books that should be re-read some time. When Lucy from Literary Relish posted about it this week I was prompted to have a hopeful look in the bookcase, for I was sure my copy had disappeared several years ago, and there, among the H’s and tucked in a corner, was a slim, battered paperback copy of 84 Charing Cross Road.
Note to eldest daughter who informed me I was anal when I rearranged my books in approximate alphabetical order (first letter only, it really doesn’t worry me if the Austens are in front of the Atkinsons) – being anal has its uses sometimes.
For those who’ve never come across this wonderful little book before it’s the correspondence between Helene Hanff, a New York writer and playwright, and Marks and Co, secondhand booksellers of Charing Cross Road. It starts in 1949 when good second hand books are rare and expensive in New York and England is under the grip of worse rationing than during the war. They send Helene the books she craves, she sends them a food parcel as a Christmas present and then panics because there’s a 6lb ham in there and it’s occurred to her that the owners, the Marks’ might be kosher. The letters continue for twenty years, Helene is always saving up to go to London and meet everyone in the bookshop but one financial crisis after another gets in the way, until finally it’s too late.
This book is a joy, it’s not meaningful, it’s not going to change your life, it’s just sheer, unadulterated pleasure from beginning to end. Helene Hanff was bossy, opinionated and certainly didn’t share my tastes in books, she didn’t like fiction for heaven’s sake and writes of finally getting round to Jane Austen and ‘going out of her mind’ for Pride and Prejudice – she refused to return her library copy until Marks and Co sent her one of her own but she’s an utterly sympathetic character.
This edition also contains the sequel which i hadn’t read before, the Duchess of Bloomsbury about when Helene was finally able to make her longed-for trip to London after the English publication of 84 Charing Cross Road. By then the bookshop had closed and one of her chief correspondents was dead though she had a warm friendship by letter, and then in person, with his widow. She seems to have had a ball, she was entertained so much that she could afford to stay on in her hotel for an extra two weeks due to all the money she saved by not having to pay for her own dinners.
On July 19 she was taken to the Old Wine Shades in St Martins Lane which dates from 1663 and is the only City pub to have survived the Great Fire of London.
I worked there one summer and spent half an hour on the net trying to find out which year Helene visited just in case I might have served her. I didn’t, she was there in 1971 which was before my time. What did surprise me is that she said she was taken there for ‘sherry at eleven’. The Old Wine Shades was very genteel in those days, it only started serving beer the year before I worked there – pubs serve beer, the Old Wine Shades was a wine bar… but I don’t remember any of the City gents who streamed in through the doors as soon as we opened at eleven having anything so innocuous as a sherry. They went for double whiskeys, usually several, and would then move on to a roast beef sandwich accompanied by several glasses of wine. At closing time, three o clock they’d return to their offices and get down to the serious business of managing the nation’s money markets. Anyone ever wondered why Lloyds was such a Horlicks?
Returning to the point, 84 Charing Cross Road is an absolute keeper and belongs on every booklovers bookshelf. if you don’t have a copy already, do yourself a favour and hunt one out.