Saturday, 6 August 2011

84, Charing Cross Road - Helene Hanff, or once upon a time before the internet

I've been reading a lot of mysteries and horror lately - reviews will come shortly - and yesterday I wanted to read something different.  I grabbed 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff off of my books to be read shelf.  I read it once long ago, and I've seen the movie with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins.  I prefer the book version, because the sense of the relationship, the love of books, the love of selling books to the right people, comes through this series of letters over 20 years between Helene, an American writer, and Frank, who works in a used book store on Charing Cross Road in London.  This was my introduction to London, that there was a street devoted to selling books.  This is no longer true of Charing Cross Road, although many good bookstores are found in and around the area, both new and used.  I know because whenever I go to London, that's always one of my destinations.  I came to Charing Cross Road because of the book 84, Charing Cross Road.

I love the generosity between these two people, and the lives that are touched by this correspondence.  Helene writes because of an ad the book store - Marks & Co - have put in a paper, advertising they specialize in out-of-print books. As I read about her request for books, I was thrilled to see that in the 15 or so years since I read this book, I have read some of these books now myself!  Helene is always searching for a particular edition of a book, and Frank is both the buyer for the store, as well as book seller and correspondent with Helene. 

This is a fine meeting of love of books and kindness, and it is becoming a book I love.  My edition is the new Penguin edition with a photo of the bookseller on the front cover.  I see only the books, though.  .And the street in London. 

Last week I finally took the plunge and ordered some out of print books from the Book Depository in the US.  You can find them through  They will hopefully arrive next week - I'll do a post when they arrive, but really what has struck me is how different the world is now from 60 years ago when Helene first wrote to Marks & Co with her list of books. Back then, there was only mail, and letters written and sent, and long waits for replies.  Now, it's the internet - in some ways magical, with book ordering at my fingertips, and I do love the internet for this!!  And being able to see at any time what's in print, what's available, what isn't.  But I don't write letters any more, and unless I go to my local bookstore - which I do regularly -  I don't get to meet and talk with my local bookseller about books. 

What some of you may not know, is that once upon a time I worked in bookstores also.  Both new bookstores, and used bookstores.  I like them both, for different reasons.  I miss spending my days among books, helping customers find the right books, ordering for them, and just being surrounded by books.  84, Charing Cross Road made me long to be back in books again!  So I said to my husband that when I have my holidays at the end of this month, I really want to take a day to just go wander in the used book stores in Ottawa.  Because we have two universities here, we have more used book stores than many cities do, which is a secret pleasure of living in Ottawa.  Many have gone out of business now, including The Book Market on Dalhousie St, where I got my very first job when I moved to Ottawa 26 years ago.  There are still many fine ones, and I always, always find books when I go into them.

84, Charing Cross Road is all about the magic of reading, and the sharing of good books. 

Here is a small list of some of the books that are currently out of print or very hard to get, that I am looking for, because part of talking about books, is talking about what we really want to read and just can't find yet, as well as what we love. 
- Winds of Marble Arch by Connie Willis - put out by Subterranean Press, only the hardcover was published so far.  I held a copy of the hardcover in my hands, and put it back as my birthday was approaching and I wanted my husband to get it for me.  Sadly, when I went back to get it, it was already gone and any more copies have been unavailable since. 
Forest of Souls - A Walk Through The Tarot by Rachel Pollack.  I recently found a copy at our library and read it.  It was a revelation to me, and I have since bought all her books and am restudying the tarot.  While some are available used on line, I want to wait and see if I can track it down here before risking the mail.
The Spiral Dance - Gabriel Garcia Y Robertson - I had a copy of this book, read it and loved it - time travel romance set in England and Scotland, it was amazing.  It's also out of print.
Raising Demons - Shirley Jackson. I once saw a copy, I might even have owned one.  I sillily gave it away and have been looking for it ever since.  It's the hilarious story of raising her children, à la Erma Bombeck.
- any book by Charles Addams, who is the creator of the Addams family in cartoon sketches.  I once owned several books of his illustrations, which are gorgeously creepy and deliciously hinting at darkness in humans.  Absolutely the best and I finally found one of his books online at Powell's, so this is one of the orders I am waiting to see how it gets here, and in what condition.  I'm so excited! Here is a link to one of his on my wishlist.

What are you looking for, dear reader, that you haunt used book stores for, or pine away on Amazon looking for a copy suddenly appearing? 


GeraniumCat said...

I so badly wanted a copy of Words and Music by William Mayne (the fourth in his series of books based on the Canterbury Cathedral Choir School) that I set an alert on AbeBooks. For years the only edition that I knew of was being advertised in Australia. One day last year I got an email telling me there was a copy in the UK. I seem to have erased the memory of how much I paid, which was convenient.

The other piece of serendipity also happened last year, as the other book I'd hunted for for several years was reprinted by Girls Gone By. That was The Horn of Merlyns by Violet Needham - it was lovely to read it again.

I still haven't read Words and Music, I keep saving it up for a special occasion. Then I wonder, what if I get run over by a bus - will my dying thought be, I didn't read Words and Music...?

Kerry said...

It is many, many years since I read 84, Charing Cross Road but I loved it ever so much. The book aspects of it were wonderful, but so were the parts about the way London was recovering from the war.

There is a "sequel" called The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street which recounts Helene's visit when she finally makes it to the UK, sadly after Frank has passed away.

Susan said...

Geraniumcat: LOL! You always make me feel less like a book freak! I know exactly what you mean about a) looking for books everywhere (and erasing the cost), and b) deciding to read now books I want to read - that's sort of my unofficial goal this year, is read what I want to, now. It's not that I don't like saving books to read, I was ending up saving so many good ones, and I finally decided, why? So many good ones are being published now too.....So here's to you reading Words and Music soon!

Kerry:Yes, I remember being horrified the first time I heard that the rationing went on for years and years after the war was over. This book certainly makes it real, too.

Thanks for the tip of her sequel, I think I'll see if I can find it. It won't be quite the same, though it will be interesting to see if she finds the London she is looking for, like the friend says in Charing Cross Road.

Kailana said...

I have been hear a lot about this book lately, so I finally requested a copy from the library. I am looking forward to it!

A few years ago I was a bit obsessed with out-of-print fantasy and there is probably lots more that I want, but I have so many books to read I don't really think about it....

JaneGS said...

It's been decades since I read 84, Caring Cross Road, but I remember loving it and feeling woefully under-educated. It seems most of the books Helene was after I had never even heard of. Lovely book, and your review made my want to experience it again...soon!

Onesimus said...

Hi Susan,
does your edition include the follow up to 84 Charing Cross Road?

It's called The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and is an account of when Helene finally makes it to London.

Here of some of my thoughts after I read both books.

Sarsafrass said...

I read 84 Charing Cross in the 11th grade and didn't care for it - I'm so glad I decided to give it a second chance this summer, because what was I thinking - it's a charming, wonderful book!
I also live in the Ottawa area and I must admit to not knowing much about the used book stores, aside from the Book Bazaar (where I have spent far too much money).

Julia Smith said...

Most of the pine-for books are children's books. There's even an English kids' chapter book I can only mistily remember, but it had a plain rusty orange cover and a Narnia feel to it, that I wonder if I'll ever: a) recall the actual book and b) somehow stumble across it and go 'Aha! That's it!'

Susan said...

Kailana: Oh, I hope you enjoy it!! and i know about out of print fantasy....I've begun to collect some, and many are anyway in series I'm trying to read. Even going by the World fantasy award winners, list, some are out of print! It's funny what is and isn't available. I think we could live our lives at a used bookstore and still have out of print books to find! It would be fun to try though, wouldn't it?

Jane: It was so fun to realize that this time around, I had read some of the books she mentions! At least it showed I have added to my reading over the years! i have to look for the sequel now. Have you read it?

Onesimus: thank you! I will come read your link and leave a comment. No, my edition doesn't include The Duchess, so I'm now on the hunt for it.

Sarsafrass: The Book Bazaar is amazing, isn't it? I love going in there, and discovering the strange, the odd, the bizarre, the sought after, and the most wanted of books. One place I do go to often for second-hand books is the St Vincent de Paul on Wellington St, it has the most surprising collection. I'm so glad you are in Ottawa too!! Hi!

Julia: I know what you mean. I'm collecting LM Montgomery again, but I find I want the McClelland and Stewart editions I first read the books in! I hope you find your mystery book.