84, Charing Cross Road
by Helene Hanff
I was in Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe a few months ago while in Washington D.C. for a wedding, and I recommend, if you ever find yourself in the neighborhood, you run right into this lovely little store and enjoy all the books that surround you.
It would make sense for a lover of books to have heard of 84, Charing Cross Road before, but the first time I had ever seen this tiny little gift was the day I scanned over it on the staff's Recommended Reading shelf.
It blended in, and had I not been paying attention to it I would have left without it.
It sat on the floor next to my bedside table for weeks, as most of my books do, because, you see, I have to be able to part with a book before I make the decision to pick it up. I find that I get so attached to the words I read that I drop pieces of myself behind, scattered between all the pages in case I ever need to find my way back.
And I usually know the books that will affect me the most when I pick them up for the first time.
"You found y0ur books?" John said when he found me standing next to him. It is always your books.
"I need these," I said. "I especially must have this one."
It was a gift to read the letters between Helene Hanff and Frank Doel within 84, Charing Cross Road. There's just something special about people who love books - I find myself comforted when I realize I am not the only one who feels like her house needs to be overflowing with bound pages.
What begins as a purely professional correspondence turns into one of the sweetest friendships I've been allowed to read on paper.
"October 5, 1949
...I enclose a list of my most pressing problem. If you have clean secondhand copies of any of the books on the list, for no more than $5.00 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?
Very, truly yours,
"25 October, 1949
...The Leigh Hunt essays are not going to be so easy but we will see if we can find an attractive volume with them all in.
For MARKS & CO.
But, fairly suddenly, these letters change, and when they change you, the reader, realize that Helene is a ferociously humorous woman trying so desperately to get a reaction out of her favorite antiquarian bookseller.
"October 15, 1951
WHAT KIND OF PEPYS' DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS?
...i enclose two limp singles, i will make do with this thing till you find me a real Pepys. THEN i will rip up this ersatz book, page by page, AND WRAP THINGS IN IT.
P.S. Fresh eggs or powdered for Xmas? I know the powdered last longer but "fresh farm eggs flown from Denmark" have got to taste better. you want to take a vote on it?"
"November 2, 1951
Dear Speed -
You dizzy me, rushing Leigh Hunt and the Vulgate over here whizbang like that. You probably don't realize it, but it's hardly more than two years since I ordered them.
"14th February, 1952
I quite agree it is time we dropped the "Miss" when writing to you. I am really not so stand-offish as you may have been led to believe, but as copies of letters I have written to you go into the office files the formal address seemed more appropriate.
Wish best wishes from us all,
"17th April, 1952
Dear Helene (you see I don't care about the files any more)...
The San Francisco Examiner said this book was "A unique, throat-lumping, side-splitting treasure", and I could scream with how much I agree with that blurb, especially the throat-lumping part.