|Marks & Co.
(photo: National Library of Australia )
In a letter dated October 5, 1949, a New York City woman responded to an advertisement placed by London's Marks & Co. bookshop in the Saturday Review of Literature.
Noting that the phrase "antiquarian bookseller" had prompted fear the shop's wares might be too expensive, she wrote: "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 schoolboy copies."
Thus began a legendary correspondence, over the course of two decades, between Helene Hanff and bookseller Frank Doel of Marks & Co., as well as his colleagues and family. These letters would eventually be collected and published in 84, Charing Cross Road (1970). If books are an essential part of your life, you probably know about 84. Reading it is a booklover's rite of passage, as is seeing the 1987 film adaptation starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. It's such common currency that perhaps only You've Got Mail is cited more often as an easy analogy by the media in bookshop-themed articles.
After writing about Naz Riahi's wonderful short film Sincerely, Erik last week, I reread 84, Charing Cross Road, inspired no doubt by the letters Left Bank Books owner Erik DuRon writes to his customers, reader to reader. I also thought about the travails of the U.S. Postal Service, and considered all of the other booksellers worldwide--hundreds, thousands--whose business model has become so reliant on correspondence now. While e-mails may not seem to have the grace and tactile pleasure of physical letter-writing, digital words still carry weight.
Letters, however, are special. The Ivy Bookshop, Baltimore, Md., has recently launched a Young Pen Pals Club. Special projects manager Hannah Fenster told Forbes magazine: "It occurred to us that just like holding a real book, there's something timeless about the excitement of writing and receiving real, handwritten letters. I'm an avid letter-writer myself so I can't deny that this is a bit of a passion project. This summer, I've been reading the letters of Margaret Mead, who built and maintained an entire familial, social, and professional network via pen and paper. Legacies of people like her are on my mind, too, as I think about possibilities for cultivating closeness across distance. My own grandmother's stunning letters set the stage for a vibrant quarantine pen pal system linking my mom, brothers, cousins, and me. I'm just obsessed with the way letter writing fosters both presence and legacy."
Which brings me back to Hanff's world. It's tempting, I think, to remember 84, Charing Cross Road as a "charming" read, which it is. But the magic in these letters is that they are also cranky, loving, demanding, angry, sad, funny, sarcastic, broken-hearted, joyful, empathetic and much more.
I love Hanff's ability to voice consumer outrage and human generosity almost simultaneously: "Frank Doel what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND.... you leave me sitting here writing long margin notes in library books that don't belong to me, someday they'll find out I did it and take my library card away.
"I have made arrangements with the Easter bunny to bring you an Egg, he will get over there and find you have died of Inertia... I require a book of love poems with spring coming on.... Well, don't just sit there! Go find it. I swear I don't know how that shop keeps going."
To which Doel replies: "I have to thank you for the very welcome Easter parcel which arrived safely yesterday. We were all delighted to see the tins and the box of shell eggs, and the rest of the staff joins me in thanking you for your very kind and generous thought of us."
Writing to one of the bookseller's colleagues, Hanff confides: "Poor Frank, I give him such a hard time, I'm always bawling him out for something. I'm only teasing, but I know he'll take me seriously. I keep trying to puncture that proper British reserve."
Although she would finally visit her beloved London after Doel had passed away and Marks & Co. had closed, Hanff wasn't envisioning that trip when she wrote in 1969: "I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for. I said I'd go looking for the England of English Literature, and he nodded and said: 'It's there.' Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't. Looking around the rug one thing's for sure: it's here."
The Ivy Bookshop's Fenster said she wants the experience of writing snail mail letters in the Young Pen Pals Club to be fun for participants: "I hope it's enjoyable to express yourself and know that expression will be seen by someone else. I hope that the reality of holding a piece of mail helps remind young people that they're not alone--that others like them are out there making it through quarantine, and that new friends are still possible, still magic."
Helene Hanff would get that.