84, Charing Cross Road
by Helene Hanff

Avon Books, 1970. ISBN 0380001225.
Reviewed by Lee Ambrose
Posted on 07/28/2004

Nonfiction: Memoir

In less than one hundred pages, Helene Hanff has given her readers a rare and special gift. Here in this delightful little book are the notes she exchanged with the employees of Marks & Co., a used-book store in England. Being fond of the old-fashioned yet still highly personal act of letter writing, and being equally fond of old books and used-book stores, Hanff seemed to have compiled these letters just for me. I doubt there is anyone who can read this book without experiencing a wide range of emotions complete with laughter and tears.

A lifelong letter writer, Helene Hanff studied playwriting at the Theatre Guild. She has written scripts for "The Hallmark Hall of Fame" and for "Ellery Queen." Her other writings include several children's books as well as articles for Harpers and New Yorker magazines.

Living and writing in New York City, Hanff finds herself unsuccessful in finding certain rare or out-of-print editions of books.

Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books. The phrase 'antiquarian booksellers' scares me somewhat, as I equate 'antique' with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or in Barnes & Noble's grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies."

So begins the opening letter dated October 5, 1949, and addressed to Marks & Co. at 84, Charing Cross Road in London. What follows on the pages of this book are the letters Hanff wrote to Marks & Co., and specifically to Frank P. Dole. Also included are the responses to her requests, mostly from Frank P. Dole. Through their twenty-year relationship, the two strangers become in some ways like family. Frank introduces his family to Helene in letters. She corresponds with the family as if they are her own. Knowing that in a time of rationing, certain items are not readily available to the residents of London, she takes great care to ship Christmas and Easter gifts to the store with plenty of eggs and meat for everyone there.

The final entry, dated 1969, brings the relationship between the bookstore, Frank Dole and Hanff full circle. The twenty years between the first and last notes are fondly recalled on the pages of this book.

These short notes, her requests for specific books, the monetary transactions that took place, and the solid relationships that developed allow the present day reader to glimpse a bit of the nostalgic... a gentler time when costs were lower, trust was higher, and people were more willing to be compassionate to complete strangers.

This is a truly delightful little book that has captured my heart. And, by the way, the fact that I discovered it while browsing through my own favorite little used-book store lends a special sort of appeal to it. I treasure the gifts within these pages--the gifts of self, of the written word, and the appreciation for the simpler things in life.

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