Jul 20, 2009

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

84 Charing Cross Road

As most of you probably know, 84 Charing Cross Road documents twenty years of correspondence between Helene Hanff, a writer and booklover from New York, and the staff at Marks & Co, a second-hand bookshop in London. Her main correspondent is Frank Doel, but over the years she also makes friends with the other booksellers, with Frank’s wife, and even with an elderly neighbour of theirs.

The letters go from 1949 to 1969, so they cover the post-war food shortages in Britain. Helene Hanff regularly sends her friends parcels with meat and eggs and things to eat that weren’t widely available, and she does so for no other reason other than that she’s nice. Something I managed to completely miss even though I’ve heard a lot about this book is that it’s non-fiction. The letters are real, all the random acts of kindness are real, and that just makes everything even better.

There’s so much to love about this little book. The whole thing is so friendly, so funny and warm and full of kindness. Both Helene and Frank Doel have a lovely sense of humour, and made laugh out loud several times. Plus her love of books is something I’m sure almost everyone reading this will be able to relate to. But it’s not just the humour and the bookishness of it all. It’s also the fact that this is a book I will read when I need to be reminded, as we all do sometimes, that yes, people can in fact be very kind to one another. It’s not that I want to ignore the fact that they can be awful too, but sometimes I just need a book that will make me smile all the way through.

84 Charing Cross Road
is happy and tender and, yes, heartwarming, but it has a kind of charm and spontaneity that stories that deliberately try to be uplifting or inspirational or whatever often lack. Helene Hanff is never loud or self-congratulatory about how nice she is. She just does the things she does because she genuinely cares about people.

This book also reminded me of all you lovely people, you who are my friends even though we’re in different countries or continents, who mail me books and cards and bookmarks for no reason other than that you’re kind, who share your enthusiasm for stories with me. And if this sounds sappy, I don’t care – this is the kind of book that makes you want to hug a stranger and tell your friends you love them (in a completely non-creepy sort of way, of course).

The Duchess of Bloomsbury StreetMy edition of the book is actually an omnibus that also contains her book The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. And let me tell you, the second book is just as lovely as the first, if not more. If you’re read one but not the other, do yourself a favour and get it right now.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is Helene Hanff’s account of her trip to England, which finally happens in the summer of 1971, after 84 Charing Cross Road is published. The title comes from the fact that everyone was being so kind to her that she felt she got to be a duchess for a few weeks – and this is only proper, because she was so kind to people to begin with. Everyone offers to show her around and invites her to dinner, and she’s especially happy with that because being fed means saving money, and saving money means being able to afford more time in London.

I loved seeing her meet some of the people she had corresponded with for so long. But most of all, I loved the deeply personal connection she has with English history and literature. I loved how she felt when she finally visited placed she'd read about for so long, places where her favourite writers had actually been centuries before. There were several bits that really moved me, and I even cried when she had to go home at the end. The whole thing is happy, but, well, I'm sure you know how it is. There's some bittersweetness in there as well.

The writing is just as charming and funny as it is in her letters, and she’s such a pleasant person to spend time with. If you’re in the mood for a literary tour of England, I can’t think of a better virtual guide than Helene Hanff.

Favourite passages:
I wish you hadn’t been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf. It’s the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you’d decrease its value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly for the future owner. I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I love the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long ago has called my attention to.)

The Newman arrived almost a week ago and I’m just beginning to recover. I keep it on the table with me all day, every now and then I stop typing and reach over and touch it. Not because it’s a first edition; I just never saw a book so beautiful. I feel vaguely guilty about owning it. All that gleaming leather and gold stamping and beautiful type belongs in the pine-panelled library of an English country home; it wants to be read by the fire in a gentleman’s leather easy chair – not on a secondhand studio couch in a one-room hovel in a brokendown brownstone front.
And these two bits cracked me up:
I fail to see why you did not understand that groceryman, he did not call it “ground ground nuts,” he called it “ground ground-nuts” which is the only really SENSible thing to call it. Peanuts grow in the GROUND and are therefore GROUND-nuts, and after you take them out of the ground you grind them up and you have ground ground-nuts, which is a much more accurate name than peanut butter, you just don’t understand English.

i am going to bed, i will have hideous nightmares involving huge monsters in academic robes carrying long bloody butcher knives labelled Excerpt, Selection, Passages, and Abridged.
Other Opinions:
At Home With Books
The Literate Housewife Review
Care’s Online Bookclub
Books and Movies
Citizen Reader
Book Nut
The Book Lady’s Blog
The Bluestocking Society
Library Queue
A Comfy Chair and a Good Book
Bart's Bookshelf
Rebecca Reads
Jenny's Books
Subliminal Intervention
The Zen Leaf

(As always, let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. I adored Hanff's sense of humor! The book is a treat.

  2. Oh, I've been wanting to read 84 Charing Cross Road for so long, and you're review is bumping it up my list! It sounds so delightful. I like sappy sometimes, and it sounds like it hits the spot.

  3. Care: I did too :) I laughed and smiled the whole time, even when I cried :)

    Rebecca: The thing is, it's as sweet as it could be but never sappy. I don't know how she manages it!

  4. I had no idea this was nonfiction. Actually, I really didn't know what this book was about, just that I had it on my list of major books to read. I'd seen it on lots of major book lists. I'm really happy to know what it's about now. It sounds really good.

  5. This is one of those books that I have heard the title mentioned a lot, but I knew nothing about it. Now I do and it sounds like a lovey book as well as The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. Will put it on my birthday list.

  6. I love that you thought about the book blogging community when you read this. I think it's an appropriate modern-day take on it. Glad you loved this book!

    Thanks for the link. I'll add yours to mine. :)

  7. gotta read this! It's been on my radar for years!

  8. I've had 84 Charing Cross Road on my wish list for a while but had never heard of The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. It's going on my wish list as well. Oh, how I miss the art of letter writing.

  9. I'm so pleased you liked it! I really should reread this. I appreciate the internet and email and everything, but I think it's such a shame that we've lost letter-writing these days. There aren't going to be any books like this for our times, because nobody writes any damn letters.

    Every time this occurs to me I feel like I should start writing letters, but it takes so long, and my hand starts to cramp, and if I send them to people they'll feel guilty for not sending me letters back, and do I even have stamps and will I remember what I've put in the letter and refrain from putting it all in emails that I write in the meantime, and it just gets to be too much bother.

  10. 84 Charing Cross Road is one of my favorite books of all time.I am so glad that you enjoyed it too (but what's not to love?). Must, must find The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, as I've not read that one. She also wrote a book about her beloved "Q" but I forget the title. Bother and blast.

    Also, I watched, enjoyed, and learned from Mr. Dirda's talk. Thank you so much!

  11. Love Hanff! I remember being so impressed with the books she was seeking, but remember more the relationships developed!

  12. I am wondering whether I should stay away from your blog Nymeth, you are really bad for my TBR list!! I want this one now too, actually both of them. I love books in letter format and the fact that it is non fiction just makes it more appealing.

  13. Glad you enjoyed these. I'll have to get my hands on a copy.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  14. This is such a lovely and funny book, glad you liked it. :)

    ps: my review is here.

  15. this book does sound really good.
    great review!
    'It’s also the fact that this is a book I will read when I need to be reminded, as we all do sometimes, that yes, people can in fact be very kind to one another. '-sounds great.

  16. Care was so in love with this book, and she convinced me it would be perfect for the last read-a-thon. But unfortunately it was checked out of the library at the time. I'm so glad you've reminded me of it...it sounds so utterly charming.

  17. Isn't this such a lovely book? I"m so glad to hear you enjoyed it. I remember on my first visit to London going to Charing Cross Road was a big highlight of the trip :)

  18. Another book onto the wishlist!! And oh, I love, love, love the cover! :)

  19. Hi Ana,

    I nominated you for BBAW.

    Good luck.

  20. Wanna know something sad? I never knew what this book was about until you've reviewed it! I always knew that title, but that was it! Another book memoir!! Very excited :D Can't wait to read it. And I shall indeed pick up The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street as well.

    On a sad note, I got an email from Abe Books today telling me your order has been cancelled because the seller didn't have the book in stock :( So I have to reorder it....You'll get it eventually, I promise!

  21. "As most of you probably know..." Waaahhhhh! :( Not me. I think I might have heard of this one but I can't think of where or why. It does sound very lovely, though, and random acts of kindness are always great. Especially when they are unexpected. So hug on in your very non-creepy way. I love when books make you want to pass on love to others.

  22. I absolutely love this charming book!! Your thoughts on this were wonderful and so true!! I'm going to make sure I read The Duchess for sure!!

  23. You're no good, Ana. LOL! Everytime I come here, I end up with one more book entering my wishlist. How to whittle down my TBR like that??? LOL!

  24. I adored this book! I really need to get my hands on The Duchess...

    Thanks for the link, too!

  25. A dear book-loving friend bought me the movie version of this and I still haven't gotten around to watching it. I feel so guilty. I need to get it out and watch it soon.

  26. Wonderful review! I didn't realize this was non-fiction. It is on my TBR.

  27. Sounds like the perfect non-fiction companion book to 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society'.

    By the way 'Slam' is right now in the post on its way to you :)

  28. This was one of my favourite books of last year.

    I think one of the most frustrating things to discover was that it was so short and readable meaning that I could have welcomed it into my life so much sooner if I had only realised that it would only take one wonderful, enchanting afternoon!

  29. I've never read the Duchess of Bloomsbury St., but I love Charing Cross Rd.

    Have you seen the movie? It is nicely done and very charming.

  30. Amanda: It is! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did if you decide to pick it up.

    Rhinoa: There's actually a plaque where the bookshop used to be at Charing Cross Road - have you ever noticed it? I must pay attention next time I visit!

    Tricia: You're welcome :) It really reminded me of our community :D

    Marie: Do :D

    bermudaonion: I think reading them together makes for an even more enjoyable experience :)

    Jenny: Yes, I'm the same. I love the idea of writing letters, but not so much the logistics involved, and I take forever to reply to my poor neglected penpals. Ah well...at least in the book they were slow too, with only a couple of letters a year sometimes :P

    ds: Yes, you must read The Duchess! It is such a delight. And you're most welcome! I'm so glad you enjoyed the talk :)

    jenclair: I confess I hadn't heard of half the things she wanted to read :P

    Scrap Girl: Noooooooo! Don't leave me :P

    Anna: Do! And get the two-in-one edition if you can, as they really go perfectly together!

    Bart: Added - thank you!

    Naida: I think we all need one of those from time to time :)

    Debi: It is! There's no way you won't enjoy it.

    Iliana: I wish I had looked for the plaque when I was there!

    Melody: I love the cover too :)

    Susan: Thank you so much! Good luck to Color Online as well - I so hope you win.

  31. Chris: Well, now you know! And no worries about the book! It's not like I don't have enough to keep me busy in the meantime :P

    Trish: Well, you do now :P I love it when that happens too. I think you'll find that book as charming as I did :)

    Staci: Do! It's seriously just as lovely :D

    Alice: lol, sorry :P

    Carrie K: You're welcome! Anyone who loved this will also love The Duchess for sure :D

    Carl: Now that I've read the book I really want to watch it! Especially since I keep hearing how well done it is.

    Teddy Rose: lol, I'm glad I'm not alone :P

    Jodie: yay, thank you :D And I must read Guernsey.

    Claire: It'll be one of my favourites of this year for sure! I wish I'd read it sooner too, but at least I have now :)

    Beth: Oooh, you will love it too then! I haven't watched the movie yet, but I plan to :)

  32. Sounds like a really wonderful read! Great review, thanks.

  33. I definitely need to read this one! I saw the film a year or two ago by chance -- and just loved it. Thanks for reminding me to grab this one! :)

  34. Somehow I missed book number two. Thanks for pointing it out!

  35. This sounds like such a good read. I've been hearing a lot about this book and I will definitely be picking it up...thanks for sharing!

  36. I had heard the name before but I never had any idea what the book was about but it sound absolutely delightful. I'll be trying to get my hands on it it. Love your review.

  37. 84 Charing Cross Road is one of my favorite books. I had no idea she'd written another one. Now, I have to go out and find The Duchess.

    Have you seen the film with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins? It's terrific.

  38. This is one of my all-time favorites...and it's time to read it again! Thanks for reminding me...

  39. Oh, Nymeth - this is one of my favorites, and I think if it often, too, when I think about this wonderful book-blogging community! And I also adore the film. :-) When my husband and I went to London we hunted for the location of that shop, and it is sweet that they've put a plaque there.

  40. I <3 books about books and book lovers. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  41. I read this a couple of years ago and absolutely loved it. I thought it was charming and funny and kept it on my permanent shelves to read again. After reading your review, I want to go grab my copy and get to it. Great review!

  42. This sounds like a really heart-warming book. Thanks for the heads-up :-)

  43. This book is on my wishlist. Good to know that you liked it too.

    I'm getting both the books.

  44. I didn't know about the second book, but have been meaning to read the first for a while. I'll be sure to get the omnibus!

  45. I liked this a lot, and I'm waiting very (im)patiently for the library to get a copy of the movie version which I placed on hold.

  46. Mariel, you'll enjoy this for sure :)

    Meg: I so need to watch the film!

    Terri B: I hadn't heard of it before either. Which is too bad, as it really is as charming as book one!

    Sam: It's a book lover's sort of book :D

    Nicole: Thank you! It really is a delight :)

    Holly: I haven't, but after so many of you recommended it I must! Enjoy The Duchess!

    JoAnn: I can see myself to it returning to it many times over the years :)

    Darla: I so wish I'd known about it when I was in London! Ah well, there's always next time :P

    Christina: Me too! And this is one of the best :)

    Zibilee: Like I was telling JoAnn, I know I'll be re-reading it also!

    Aarti: It is! It made me so happy.

    Violet: The two in one edition is definitely worth it if you can find that!

    J.T. Oldfield: Yes, do!

    Joanne: Sigh, I wish my library even had movies :P

  47. Gah! I've been meaning to read 84 Charing Cross Road for ages but still haven't got around to it. I have seen the movie but your review makes me think I should dig out the book and make an effort to finally read it.

  48. I've never read this, but I love your review. In fact, I mentioned it in my latest post.



Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.