Road to Friendship
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is an epistolary account of a twenty-year correspondence between a New York writer and a used book seller in London. In 1949 Helene Hanff writes to Marks & Co., Booksellers at 84, Charing Cross Road in London to inquire about out-of-print books that she is looking for. She promptly receives a response and so begins a cordial business relationship that ends in friendship, though the two never meet personally. Slowly you see the progression of familiarity. They go from salutations of “Gentlemen” and “Madam” to “Helene” and “Frankie.” Helene’s witty and sassy letters are at times accompanied by packages of precious goods that are still rationed in post-war England. She send hams, powdered eggs, and other goodies to an appreciative Frank and his colleagues, which spurs letters from the grateful bookstore recipients as well as Frank’s wife.
This book was on my reading wish list for a long, long time. I recently, finally, ordered a used copy online, which is of course the modern way that sadly eliminates the need for human-like interaction, but happily gives you so many more options than before. (I had also looked in a good old-fashioned bookstore, but they didn’t have it.) For a penny plus shipping, which is about the cost of one coffee, I received a surprisingly thin, little book which took me about as long to read it as does to drink a cup of coffee. But, I was NOT disappointed. I loved the letters and how they subtly reveal bits of the writers’ lives and even the times: the food rationings, Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, how difficult and rare it was to get a car in England. I learned that the pages of many old, old, old books had to be cut before they could be read. The pages were folded over and bound, so the reader had to take a knife and slice the pages apart. It’s nothing I would like to do for each book I read now, but it would bring a whole new anticipation to reading a book.
This was an uplifting and endearing book.
It made me wish I had some kind of correspondence with a total stranger. But when I thought about it, I realized I have something much, much better. I have been exchanging letters with my friend, Anja, since 1971. (Yikes I’m old!) Anja is my friend whom I met in Germany where we went to the first grade together—well, the first half of the year anyway, before I moved to America. We have been writing each other ever since and even send small Christmas gifts every year. Through the years our letters kept us up to date on our lives: husbands, kids (mine), work, and travels (mainly hers). She’s a career woman who’s traveled extensively. Strangely, we’ve never stepped it up to emails other than a few scant ones here and there, but we are Facebook friends and also connect that way. We have each visited each other, but wish we could get together more. I think it’s my turn now since the last time I was there was in 1983. She wants to meet me in New York this fall. Wouldn’t that be nice? Wish I could. Anja’s friendship means a lot to me—I think forty+ years of correspondence proves that.
This book met a several of my 2015 Book Challenges: Read a book that has a number in the title; read a memoir; read a book set in a foreign country (England); read a book that has or will become a movie (released in 1987 starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft—on my list to see.)