A stately British bookseller and an American writer exchange letters across the pond? Sounds like a cozy English romance novel to me. Turns out 84, Charing Cross Road is neither a novel nor a romance, but a collection of actual letters from over 20 years of correspondence, and it’s delightful.
Frank Doel, one of the booksellers at the rare book store at the titular address in London, is the straight man in this epistolary relationship. This allows Helene Hanff, a Brooklyn screenwriter and lover of British literature, to sparkle with personality. You get a pretty good sense of what Hanff was like right away. It doesn’t take long for her to playfully badger Doel, a man she’d never met, about a book she requested:
Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND. .. Well, don’t just sit there! Go find it! i swear i dont know how that shop keeps going.
what do you do with yourself all day, sit in the back of the store and read? why don’t you try selling a book to somebody?
— MISS Hanff to you. (I’m helene only to my FRIENDS)
Their letters also place them in the specific historical moment of postwar England where rationing made basics like meat and jam luxuries:
I send you greetings from America—faithless friend that she is, pouring millions into rebuilding Japan and Germany while letting England starve. Some day, God willing, I’ll get over there and apologize personally for my country’s sins (and by the time i come home my country will certainly have to apologize for mine).
She’s also clearly a bibliophile. When the bookstore employees send her a book and a note with their signatures as a Christmas gift, she admonishes them for writing the note on a separate card rather than in the book itself:
I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.
And yet, she’s not precious about them:
My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.
I watched the 1987 movie version right after reading the book. It includes pretty much every word from the original letters, so reading the book will give you all you need. Then again, you’d miss out on some solid typewriter action, as seen above and here, with Hanff played by Anne Bancroft:
Anthony Hopkins, who plays Frank Doel, also gets in on the action with his Underwood:
There’s also the real Helene: