In New York 1949, in the years not long following the terrible losses in the world from the War, a young writer who had never gone to college sent a letter to a bookshop called Marks and Co. in Charing Cross Road, London. She was determined to be self-educated. She wanted a number of classic books, then only available in old editions; the great cheap reprints of today had not yet been envisioned. She sent the bookshop a list of what she wanted. Back came a letter from one FPD (Frank Doel) for Marks & Co. saying they had copies of a few things on her list and would send them book mail. The invoice would be enclosed with the books. Yes, there really was a world when you could order anything and the seller did not doubt you would pay for it. In England Lyons Tea Shops were all over, and Elizabeth would not ascend the throne for three more years.
Through the mail, Helene Hanff wrote, “I enclose $4 to cover the $3.88 due you, buy yourself a cup of coffee with the 12 cents…Now, do you have….” And back came more estate-quality editions so beautiful she hardly dared read them.
|Helene Hanff,who fell in love with an English bookshop|
You never know what happens when you write a first letter to someone. “Gentlemen” which was the first salutation evolved into “Dear Frankie.” The request for books developed into a friendship with the whole bookshop staff. It led to her sending boxes of meat and dried egg and nylon stockings, things unavailable then in England except under the strictest rationing.
The correspondence of Ms. Hanff and bookseller Frank Doel continued for twenty years. Their letters were collected into a small book call 84,Charing Cross Road which became an underground classic and earned Helene Hanff hundreds of fan letters from strangers in English-speaking countries around the world. It became a BBC live television play. It became a West End play and a Broadway play and eventually a movie with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins.
|Anthony Hopkins as bookseller Frank Doel in the film|
But Helene never met her friend Frankie; he died suddenly in 1968 . Almost the whole of the London antiquarian book trade attended his funeral on a bitterly cold day.
When Helene finally sold enough television scripts to go to England, she found to her great sadness that the bookstore she had made so famous in her little book had closed. Someone had saved the sign for her though. She subsequently wrote two charming small memoirs about her adventures seeing London and England at last, hosted by her huge number of fans and her English publisher. It was a dream come true. The books are The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and Q’s Legacy, which is also about how an American girl who could not afford college fell in love with English literature.
Many people love the 1987 movie version but I feel it pales next to the vivid writing of the actual letters. So if you have not read the actual 84, Charing Cross Road, you can do it in much less than an hour and it will transport you back to the time when you wrote snail mail to bookshops for what you wanted if not available here and didn’t have to pay until after it came and when a London book shop could keep a staff of six or eight employees while selling books through the mail for about two dollars each and probably a lot less if you went in person.
|Charing Cross Road as seen in the film|
In 1997 my husband and I made our own pilgrimage to 84, Charing Cross Road. At that point, the shop was empty and there was nothing but the plaque commemorating it (see above) and the book Helene had written about it. It was very sad, but there were still a number of second-hand bookshops on the street, and I bought a book in one which I still have today. It was not an antiquarian book but a used paperback, but still I love it.
A few years before I had written Helene Hanff a fan letter; she still lived in the Manhattan apartment house whose address was listed in her books. She was then about 80 years old. She wrote me a lovely handwritten letter back which lies buried in one of the many boxes of papers or I would hope to scan it for this article. I was perfectly thrilled to receive it.
|the original edition of the book of letters|
Stephanie Cowell is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of an American Book Award. Her next novel is on the love story of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning to be followed by the conclusion of the Nicholas trilogy and an Edwardian love story between two men in the English midlands. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Her website is http://www.stephaniecowell.com. e-mail: StephanieCowell@nyc.rr.com