I have a special love for the film, You’ve Got Mail. It’s not so much love as an obsession. It’s a lovely testimony to the power of the written word; the film is about two bookstore owners who write letters to each other – oh, all right, emails – and discuss books, New York, books, people, and also books.
A film with book discussions, and (narrated, that’s important) letters is the best kind. Naturally, I became obsessed, and I hunted for more films in the same vein. Sadly, my search was not successful (movie people, you need to get onto that). In the end, I had to switch my search to printed work, which led me to discover the most sparkling of gems, 84 Charing Cross Road. It was better than any movie could have ever been.
Marks & Co.
84, Charing Cross Road
London, W.C. 2
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 antiquarian taste in books and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or Barnes & Noble’s grimy, marked-up school-boy copies.
I enclose a list of my most pressing problems. If you have clean secondhand copies of any of the books on the list, for no more than $5.00 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?
Very truly yours,
Epistolary novels are delicious. Reading letters and diary entries offers a kind of pleasure that no other reading can. (To clarify, I’m a ferociously private person, and being one, am also very ferocious about respecting other people’s privacy. But I won’t deny that I’m curious.) And 84 CC manages to fulfil all the curiosity needs that any like-minded bookworms might have.
It’s a slender book, consisting of the letters that American writer Helene Hanff wrote to Marks and Co., London booksellers. It starts off with simple requests for specific editions and preferred translations, but inevitably the lives at both ends start to spill into the correspondence. The book emanates this feeling of cosy camaraderie – not between Helene and the booksellers, though there is that – but a small world within itself. As I was reading, I envisioned the small apartment filling up with books, connected to the modest “straight out of Dickens” bookshop in London, bursting with its offerings.
Helene’s voice is dry, witty, and vivid – she just leaps off the page, and I know this is such a typical and corny description, but yes, her voice exuded that appeal that makes you wish the narrator was your best friend.
She’s obsessed with books, buying them, collecting them, admiring them, and even reading them. She waxes lyrical about them enough for any book obsessed person to understand, and stops herself just in time for new book nerds to want a taste of this mad world. She teases the poor, professional Frank, the clerk at the bookstore, who seems to be either completely ignorant of her jabs, or is just a typical British and doesn’t know quite how to respond to those jabs (I suspect it is the latter).
All I have to say to YOU, Frank Doel, is we live in depraved, destructive and degenerate times when a bookshop – a BOOKSHOP – starts tearing up beautiful old books to use as wrapping paper. I said to John Henry when he stepped out of it: ‘Would you believe a thing like that, Your Eminence?’ and he said he wouldn’t. You tore that book up in the middle of a major battle and I don’t even know which war it was.
The Newman arrived almost a week ago and I’m just beginning to recover. I keep it on the table with me all day, every now and then I stop typing and reach over and touch it. Not because it’s a first edition; I just never saw a book so beautiful. I feel vaguely guilty about owning. All that gleaming leather and gold stamping and beautiful type belongs in the pine-panelled library of an English country home; it wants to be ready by the fire in a gentleman’s leather easy chair – not on a secondhand studio couch in a one-room hovel in a broken-down brownstone front.
I want the Q anthology. Why don’t you wrap it in pages LCXII and LCXIII so I can at least find out who won the battle and what war it was?
It’s not so much a discussion of books, as Helene and Frank and the others at Marks and Co. don’t really enter into discussions or debates over the requested titles, other than to make recommendations. However, it is still a story of friendship. Helene eventually contacts the other workers at the shop as well, sending gifts of food their way, and beginning correspondences with them as well.
Reading this novel brought to mind The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie, which I love, but I think I love this one all the more, because A) it actually happened, and B) it’s not as self-conscious or saccharine sweet, which is probably a direct consequence of A.
It’s an absolute delight, and exactly the kind of bite-sized, light-hearted, chuckle-inducing reading you want to be savouring in between the pressing obligations of real life.