Thursday, August 13, 2015

84, Charing Cross Road - The love story of a New York City woman and a London bookshop

by Stephanie Cowell

In New York 1949, in the years not long following the terrible losses in the world from the War, a young writer who had never gone to college sent a letter to a bookshop called Marks and Co. in Charing Cross Road, London. She was determined to be self-educated. She wanted a number of classic books, then only available in old editions; the great cheap reprints of today had not yet been envisioned. She sent the bookshop a list of what she wanted. Back came a letter from one FPD (Frank Doel) for Marks & Co. saying they had copies of a few things on her list and would send them book mail. The invoice would be enclosed with the books. Yes, there really was a world when you could order anything and the seller did not doubt you would pay for it. In England Lyons Tea Shops were all over, and Elizabeth would not ascend the throne for three more years.

Through the mail, Helene Hanff wrote, “I enclose $4 to cover the $3.88 due you, buy yourself a cup of coffee with the 12 cents…Now, do you have….” And back came more estate-quality editions so beautiful she hardly dared read them.

Helene Hanff,who fell in love with an English bookshop
But she was a writer and writers are often poor. The bookshop staff wanted her to visit, but Helene could not afford to go. Instead her best friend went and wrote back to her: “It is the loveliest old shop straight out of Dickens; you would go absolutely out of your mind over it. ….It’s dim inside, and you smell the shop before you see it; it’s a lovely smell….it combines must and dust and age, and walls of wood and floors of wood…the shelves go on forever; they go up to the ceiling….”

You never know what happens when you write a first letter to someone. “Gentlemen” which was the first salutation evolved into “Dear Frankie.” The request for books developed into a friendship with the whole bookshop staff. It led to her sending boxes of meat and dried egg and nylon stockings, things unavailable then in England except under the strictest rationing. 

The correspondence of Ms. Hanff and bookseller Frank Doel continued for twenty years. Their letters were collected into a small book call 84,Charing Cross Road which became an underground classic and earned Helene Hanff hundreds of fan letters from strangers in English-speaking countries around the world. It became a BBC live television play. It became a West End play and a Broadway play and eventually a movie with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins.

Anthony Hopkins as bookseller Frank Doel in the film
But Helene never met her friend Frankie; he died suddenly in 1968 . Almost the whole of the London antiquarian book trade attended his funeral on a bitterly cold day.

When Helene finally sold enough television scripts to go to England, she found to her great sadness that the bookstore she had made so famous in her little book had closed. Someone had saved the sign for her though. She subsequently wrote two charming small memoirs about her adventures seeing London and England at last, hosted by her huge number of fans and her English publisher. It was a dream come true. The books are The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and Q’s Legacy, which is also about how an American girl who could not afford college fell in love with English literature.

Many people love the 1987 movie version but I feel it pales next to the vivid writing of the actual letters. So if you have not read the actual 84, Charing Cross Road, you can do it in much less than an hour and it will transport you back to the time when you wrote snail mail to bookshops for what you wanted if not available here and didn’t have to pay until after it came and when a London book shop could keep a staff of six or eight employees while selling books through the mail for about two dollars each and probably a lot less if you went in person.

Charing Cross Road as seen in the film

In 1997 my husband and I made our own pilgrimage to 84, Charing Cross Road. At that point, the shop was empty and there was nothing but the plaque commemorating it (see above) and the book Helene had written about it. It was very sad, but there were still a number of second-hand bookshops on the street, and I bought a book in one which I still have today. It was not an antiquarian book but a used paperback, but still I love it.

A few years before I had written Helene Hanff a fan letter; she still lived in the Manhattan apartment house whose address was listed in her books. She was then about 80 years old. She wrote me a lovely handwritten letter back which lies buried in one of the many boxes of papers or I would hope to scan it for this article. I was perfectly thrilled to receive it.

the original edition of the book of letters
I own almost all her books. Mostly they are the story of how one woman loved English literature so much that she made an ordinary Charing Cross antiquarian bookshop into one of the most loved bookshops in the world ever. And so it remains in people’s minds many years after the world it celebrated has changed forever.

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Stephanie Cowell is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of an American Book Award. Her next novel is on the love story of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning to be followed by the conclusion of the Nicholas trilogy and an Edwardian love story between two men in the English midlands. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Her website is http://www.stephaniecowell.com. e-mail: StephanieCowell@nyc.rr.com

20 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing the story behind a beautiful story. I loved the movie and you have inspired me to read the book.

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  2. A lovely post; thanks for sharing it with us.

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  3. All the books are wonderful, and your lovely remembrance will surely persuade others to read them. We watch the film every Christmas, but reading the actual correspondence is priceless. I have friends who knew Helene...from their accounts it's clear she was quite a character--your letter from her is quite a treasure!

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    1. Thanks so much, Margaret! She WAS a character... a real old fashion chain-smoking New Yorker whose other side was she wanted to learn Greek and adored Charles Lamb and Pepys.

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  4. This excellent post took me back in time. I simply picked up that first edition to flip though and then I couldn't put it down...and eagerly read the other books too as they came out . From the first paragraph one is swept up in Hanff s intense joy in the books and in Frank's British formality and then in the pleasure of its steady melting . There's a good deal of suspense as well...will the books and other items get there? Will she and Frank meet?

    It takes awhile to reconcile oneself to the fact Hanff and Frank did not met. I felt she could have gone over by the mid 60's , but something held her back ( perhaps its perfection ? ). Frank's sudden death was a cruel twist of fate. Actually that part of the story has inspired me since to do stuff, don't always wait , one never knows . Thanks again !

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    1. I'm glad you liked it, Anne. I do remember from her books that her writing income was erratic (!) and that she suddenly had huge dental work and then moved into that beautiful apartment building which is across the park from me (or maybe that was before). So there were reasons she didn't go...and she never knew of course that Frank would die suddenly. And that the shop would close.

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    2. Indeed Stephanie there were monetary limitations for Hanff though out those 18 years. There were reasons . But I always felt there was something else besides holding her back from going ... and as I say Doel's sudden passing was a cruel twist in the story as there was no last minute chance.

      In this great book we see a forerunner. to the online friendships people developed decades later and have today .It's astonishing how close such relationships can become. Yet there is often something holding one back from meeting face to face those we know in this manner .It's a momentous step .

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    3. Oh dear...I just realized you may have thought I was criticizing for her not going. By no means. I was lamenting missed chances

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    4. Oh no, Anne! Of course not! No criticism at all....we do expect opportunities to extend endlessly and then suddenly they are gone. You are right; this is a forerunner to online friendships. When I finally meet someone, it's like I've known them for years. And maybe Frank and the bookshop were like a dream to here and in a way, she did not want to bring it into the real world.

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  5. Loved your post, Stephanie! That is one of my favorite movies. Q's Legacy is delightful, and I have ordered my own copy of 84, Charing Cross Road-you inspired me to read Ms Hanff again!

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  6. I've only ever been able to get hold of the original book itself, but loved it. I saw the movie, but also the play, performed by the Melbourne Theatre Company. I loved them all. When I was in |London in the late 80s, I was walking along Charing Cross |Road with friends when I looked across the road to see what was at 84 now. It was a classical music shop. I heaved a sigh of relief. My friend Maureen saw me do it and smiled, knowing what Ï was thinking. I'm sure Frank would have approved," she said. "Or at least not minded."

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    1. You can order any of the books online. They are all in print. Sadly....I read online that it is now a McDonalds Maybe it will morph back into a bookshop one day.

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    2. Oh, dear! You know, when I was there it was next to a fast food joint and I panicked till I realised I had got the number wrong. How ironic that now it actually IS a fast food joint!

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  7. What a wonderful story, I'm completely bewitched thank you for awakening me to it; naturally my order for the book has been sent off and I have 2 or 3 weeks to wait before receiving it which is one of the joys of living in the antipodes. So I shall now sit back and wait patiently for it's arrival :)

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    1. My goodness, I'm thrilled that my little article has sold some copies of Ms. Hanff's wonderful books. And you are having to wait for your book to come just as she waited for His Majesty's Post!

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    2. Yes indeed, I shall wait on Her Majesty's Post; , now why didn't I think of that

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    3. It took a while but I received my copy yesterday the 10th September 27 days after placing my order would you believe; it took til page 9 before tears of delight filed my eyes. I shall treasure this little book. :)

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  8. I loved this Article. Now I have to go find the Book...Thank you stephanie for your beautiful tribute.
    Marilyn

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