I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but sometimes there are books that I just have to read. This was one of them. I love shopping for books in the used books stores on Charing Cross Road, and when I discovered there was a book on the same subject, I was instantly in love. This book was even more enjoyable than I expected, I am happy to report, and a brilliant sweet, short read.
Helene Hanff was a struggling writer in New York who loved to buy second hand books. Wanting to get the best value for money, she wrote all the way to London’s Marks & Co bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road to have her books delivered to place her orders. Over the course of 20 years, she struck up a friendship with many of the shop’s staff, but mainly with Frank Doel, a bookseller who took personal responsibility for her orders, and even with his family. Although she never had the opportunity to meet Frank in person, or even to see the bookshop – Frank having died, and the shop having closed by the time she managed to visit London – this makes the letters between them even more moving to read, and especially in this day and age, it was really touching to see how such long lasting relationships could grow across oceans, through the medium of letters. My own copy was followed by the sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury, Helene’s diaries from when she finally managed to visit London. Although I didn’t enjoy this section as much, her wit and unique voice is equally strong here.
The thing that really makes this book so great is Helene’s brilliant writing. Her character really came through in her writing, and her letters are so witty and teasing that you will find yourself chuckling away at them. You could really get a feel for all of the characters through the letters, from Helene’s cheery humour to Frank’s more stiff-upper-lip reserve, the gossiping receptionist and his caring wife. It was also lovely to see the passage of time through their letters, and see how the relationships evolved into genuinely caring friendships. Frank remembers requests that Helene made years before, Helene asks after his family and even talks to his wife in separate letters, and although they plan for years to meet each other in London, the evolution of this slow-burn friendship is cut tragically short by circumstance, the event that prompted Helene to publish her letters.
Being such a short book with such lively writing, this was a really enjoyable read. It is barely over 100 pages but in that short period you feel like you have gotten to know Helene and the staff at Marks & Co. I definitely recommend it for a lively, sweet book about book, friendships, and friendships about books!