84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
Publisher: Penguin Books
Number of pages: 97
My copy: borrowed paperback, TFG’s traveling book
It all began with a letter inquiring about second-hand books, written by Helene Hanff in New York, and posted to a bookshop at 84, Charing Cross Road in London. As Helene’s sarcastic and witty letters are responded to by the stodgy and proper Frank Doel of 84, Charing Cross Road, a relationship blossoms into a warm and charming long-distance friendship lasting many years.
* * *
Here’s a little fact: I love snail mail. I love letters, specifically. I think it started when our third grade teacher taught us about letter writing, and we had to pick pen pals within the class. I loved getting letters in the mail, but since my classmates and I live close to each other, it’s not really that practical to be pen pals with them. When I was in sixth grade, though, my best friend from elementary school moved to the United States. We didn’t have much contact when she left, until I happened to get her mailing address from a common friend and I sent her my first snail mail letter. This had us sending letters back and forth for the next two years, until email came and we switched to that.
Reading 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is almost like a trip back to memory lane on those days when I would spend so much time writing letters to my best friend who lived in the other side of the world. This thin volume is a collection of letters from Helene Hanff, a screenwriter in New York search of second hand books to a bookstore in 84, Charing Cross Road in London. This sparked the friendship between Helene and the staff of the bookstore, one that consisted of letters, books and gifts and spanned for decades.
84, Charing Cross Road is a little gem of a book for book lovers, and it’s most appropriate that the copy I read is a shared copy from our book club. We call it our own traveling book, and it’s gone through several readers before it landed in my hands. It’s a quick and funny read, and I finished it in a few hours — smiling, laughing, and then sighing at the end. Helene’s letters were witty and sarcastic most of the time, and Frank Doel of the book shop were always formal and proper, yet still filled with warmth. Pretty soon, the rest of the staff were writing letters to Helene, too. I find myself checking the dates in the letters every now and then, and I can’t imagine the time that pass before the letters get to the recipients. My own mail takes two to three weeks before it arrives, but some of them span months in the book. I guess it meant that they were more patient back then, whereas I get so miffed sometimes when I don’t get a reply to my email or my text message within the day. But true friendship transcends time and distance, right?
This book is very reminiscent of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, with the letters shared between book lovers. I love that 84, Charing Cross Road has that same warmth I got from the other book, even if the ending was slightly different. But I liked the latter more because it’s a true story. I think that’s the reason why I added one more star in my rating — there’s something about knowing how all of this is real that makes it even more charming. It’s too bad that the actual bookstore doesn’t exist anymore, but I would love to see where the building stood and imagine what the people inside were doing, and how excited they were every time they received Helene’s letters and packages. And maybe, even do what Helene asked her friend to do:
If you happen to pass by 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me? I owe it so much.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll stock up on my stationery so I can go write some letters again. Anyone want one? :)