This is such a charming and endearing book that I was quite sad that it had to end. I am so glad that this is a book club pick because I had never heard of it before and would have been missing out.
Helen Hanff is a writer in NYC in 1949 who begins a correspondence with a used book dealer in London seeking a list of books. A back and forth commences. As their correspondence continues through the years, the two begin to develop a friendship based on their love of books. They never meet and are separated by a whole ocean and yet, they are so familiar with each other.
I laughed at some parts and cried at others as the letters make those who are reading them feel that they are part of the company. I loved watching how Helens relationship with Frank grows beyond a book exchange and they begin to share their lives and it even extends to other employees in the book store.
I particularly loved the parts when Helen was outraged at something or when the book store was too slow in getting a book she longed for and she would blast them with a snarky letter, that was all in good fun.
“SLOTH. i could ROT over here before you’d send me anything to read. i oughta run straight down to brentano’s which i would if anything i wanted was in print…
what do you do with yourself all day, sit in the back of the store and read? why don’t you try selling a book to somebody?”Helen Hanff, February 9, 1952
Every letter is unique. Some of Helen’s letters are well thought out and grammatically correct while others, such as the one above, lack capitalization and correct punctuation. Given that she is a writer, I would assume it goes to show how much she was in a rush to send off the letter at the time.
I liked how the letters revealed what is going on in the world at that time. The correspondence starts at the end of World War II, when Britain still has food rations and things are still hard to come by. There is another letter that signals the death of the King and then the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Then another shows how tourism begins to pick up in Britain by how busy the bookstore is.
I also liked knowing what books she was requesting and what books were popular at the book store. We have a few used book stores here in upstate NY and I now want to take a stroll through one and see what they have in stock. Better yet, maybe I should write them a letter and tell them to mail me a copy.
This book will make you long for the days of letter writing, something I actually enjoyed when I was younger. There is something to be said about sending a letter to someone through the postal service and waiting to hear back. For a while, I had a pen pal who lived in Oregon, on the opposite site of the United States, and I loved hearing from her. I also wrote back and forth to my uncle in Pennsylvania too. Why don’t we write letters anymore? We have email but but it’s not the same. More often than not, we just shoot off a reply to the person that contacted us.
If you want a quick nostalgic read that you can curl up with in an afternoon, then “84 Charing Cross Road” is the perfect book.