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Niagara on the Lake, Ontario, Canada
My virtue is that I say what I think, my vice that what I think doesn't amount to much.

Friday, February 26, 2016

84, Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

My husband received this book for Christmas and he passed it along to me, knowing it was my cup of tea. It's a lovely book, number 1023 of a limited edition of 2000, published by Slightly Foxed who put out a wonderful literary quarterly featuring forgotten books. They also publish one book a quarter, all of them memoirs that have been allowed to drop out of print but not out of copyright. Helene Hanff, the author of 84, Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, would be delighted to see both of her books together in this little red cloth hardback complete with a bound bookmark.

Helene Hanff, a down on her luck aspiring New York City playwright, was looking for classics and British literature titles when she noticed an ad for a bookstore in the Saturday Review of Literature. In 1949, Marks & Co., second-hand and antiquarian booksellers at 84, Charing Cross Road, London received an enquiry from Hanff:
"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 an antiquarian taste in books and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or in 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?"
It fell to employee Frank Doel to respond. Thus began a correspondence between the brash, wisecracking American and the reserved British bookseller that spanned two decades. Over time their business relationship developed into a friendship. In 1949 Britain was living under post WW2 food rationing and Hanff forwarded food hampers to the staff at Marks & Co. Her correspondence and her parcels were much appreciated and her friendship with Frank expanded to include his co-workers, his family and even one of his neighbours. This brief book is a charming tribute to friendship, books and the lost art of letter writing.

84, Charing Cross Road leaves you wanting to know whether Helene ever gets to fulfill her dream of visiting London.  The Duchess of Bloomsbury answers that question. She does and this is the story of her 1971 trip upon the publication of the British edition of 84, Charing Cross Road. It is written in the form of diary entries in a chatty style that makes the reader feel like they are taking part in Helene's great adventure. There is an ensemble of characters, some eccentric, some not, that she meets for the first time who show her the city she's dreamed about for so long. We also learn that she likes 3 jiggers of gin in her martini and that she won't settle for less.

I preferred the letters but, being a Londonphile and a denizen of Bloomsbury when I'm there, I loved following Hanff on her journey. The book may have been a freebie but has proven to be very expensive because, after reading it, I just had to book a trip to London, didn't I?

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