There is something exceeding romantic about bookshops that you don’t really get ordering books via the internet. Instead of the anonymous clack of a computer mouse, walking into the hushed, hallowed walls of a booklined sanctuary becomes an event in itself.
Gingerly stepping to the nearest bookshelf, searching for the section that you prefer, or simply playing the roulette of random selection, your eye is caught by the spine of an enticing tome, the whisper of a favourite author or the lure of something new and unexplored.
84 Charing Cross Road journals the letter exchange of Helene Hanff, a poor New York script writer, and a bookstore employee Frank Doel working for Marks & Co. a secondhand bookseller in London. The book is a heartwarming narrative of their friendship all the while an ocean apart, of 20 years.
Marks & Co. was a “lovely old shop straight out of Dickens,” redolent of must, dust, age, and solid wood. Its bookshelves of “old oak have absorbed so much dust they no longer are their true color.”
Helene Hanff is a forthright, opinionated American, whilst Frank Doel replies with the erstwhile reserve of an English gentleman – much to her amused frustration. She warns him at one point “You better watch out, I’m coming over there in ’53 if Ellery is renewed. I’m gonna climb up that Victorian book-ladder and disturb the dust on the top shelves and everybody’s decorum.” though sadly they were never to meet.
Their friendship spanning the Second World War, and the rebuilding of Britain afterwards is simply a wonderful extension of the relationship we have with books, whatever their formats. The content of these small rectangles of paper, covers or electronic wiring are companions, travel inspiration, recipes to cook with loved ones – they all affect our lives in such meaningful ways.
Sadly, the bookshop no longer stands, a chain restaurant in it’s busy Charing Cross footprint, but to my utter surprise when I popped by to take an in-situ photo (I couldn’t resist) there is a lovely brass plaque and inscription, further documenting this friendship.
In the spirit of the book, I’d love to give my copy to someone, pass on the baton as it were. First person to pop me a comment below, and it’s yours, anywhere in the world. We can correspond by email to arrange the logistics.
Do you still write letters?