84 Charing Cross Road

by Helene Hanff

This particular edition also includes the sequel “The Duchess of Bloomsbury”, and together they make the most amusing, touching and simply wonderful read.

84 Charing Cross Road itself is a collection of letters between Helene Hanff and London bookshop Marks & Co. Most of Helene’s correspondence is with the firm’s buyer Frank Doe, but other members of the Charing Cross Road store also get involved over her twenty years as a customer. 

Helene, a Philadelphian trying to make a living as a writer in New York, had a taste for antiquarian books she was unable to find in New York. This led to her writing to Marks & Co in 1949 beginning a relationship that would prove beneficial in more ways than one. Not only was she able to satisfy her taste for out of print books, but also gave her the material for her best selling work. 

The letters between Helene and Frank are extremely touching. Helene’s dry wit and Frank’s relaxed and friendly style make the whole collection a sheer delight to read. I was immediately fascinated by the relationship and found it difficult to put the book down once I had started. I have read several books based on collections of letters (most of them fiction) but none as touching, funny and totally captivating as this. 

In “The Duchess of Bloomsbury”, Helene recounts her eventual visit to London in 1971, ironically to promote her collection of letters in which she often expressed her desire to visit the city. And like it’s predecessor, it has an honesty and warmth that are captivating make it extremely difficult to put down. 

In this volume, she finally gets to meet the family of the man she corresponded with for so long. She spends over five weeks meeting the most eclectic and eccentric collection of individuals, including the British actress Joyce Grenfell. 

Even more than the letters, this journal displays Helene’s natural charm and wit. Her observations on the city and it’s inhabitants are often laugh-out-loud funny but honest and very true. 

On their own, the two works are delightful, but together they paint a complete picture and open a window on the personality and life of the writer. An excellent book well worth the read.