84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (1916 to 1997-USA) is a charming epistolary novel. The correspondents are Ms Hanff herself and various members of the staff of a London Book Store Marks and Co. located at 84 Charing Cross Road. The letters begin when Ms Hanff sees an advertisement in the Saturday Review of Literature indicating the store specializes in out of print and antiquarian books. Ms Hanff sends them her "want list" and says she is willing to spend up to $5.00 for the books on the list. The first letter was sent in October of 1949 when London is still under rationing as a result of the war time austerity programs. Three weeks later the book store sends her an answer saying they had found one of the volumes on the list and if she agrees to the asked price they will send it to her. From this modest start a 20 year correspondence begins in which Ms Hanff becomes friends with the employees at the small store. As they supply her with the books she wants she sends them small gifts. The staff of this store actually know and love books. It is the shared love of books that allows the friendship to develop. Ms Hanff often speaks in her letters of accepting the invitation to visit London but sadly she never does. We share the excitement as she becomes a successful writer for American television. I enjoyed seeing the friendship develops over the years of letters.
As I read this book I thought that this is about a part of the reading life that will be pretty much unknown to future generations of book lovers. It is great to be able to go online and download all sorts of old works but there is a special excitement searching for months or even years for a special title and at last reading it. Maybe the love of books as physical objects may one day be something only felt by specialized collectors but the reading life will be the poorer for it.
84, Charing Cross Road is a charming heart warming book. There is a movie based on it. Maybe it is about a bygone world but in this book we can at least imagine it. I am really glad I read this book. Imagine a book store where the employees can talk about Elizabeth Bowen or Ford Madox Ford instead of Twilight!