’84 Charing Cross Road’ by Helene Hanff

84 Charing Cross Roadstarstarstar“Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books. The phrase ‘antiquarian book-sellers’ scares me somewhat, as I equate ‘antique’ with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books and all the the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or in Barnes and N0ble’s grimy, marked up school-boy copies.”

So starts this real life 20 year correspondence between a brash American writer in New York and a proper British gentleman who works in the Marks & Co. bookstore in London in 1949. She is witty, informal and sarcastic while he, in sharp contrast, is highly professional and extremely polite. Yet they develop an affection for each other over the years. He sends her the books she is looking for and she sends him care packages from America since Britain was at that time still dealing with shortages and rationing after the war. I enjoyed the first half of the book with the letters more than the second half which is about Hanff’s visit to London after the correspondence ended.

This book is charming in its old world feel, no doubt because these letters were still written on paper and sent through the mail in envelopes with stamps. That charm bubble would certainly be burst for any bibliophile who would now go looking for Marks & Co. (as I did on Google Maps). 84 Charing Cross now houses a McDonald’s restaurant! There is a movie adaptation produced by Mel Brooks starring Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins, and Judi Dench. Here is the trailer.

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