It is in the late 1940s, and Helene Hanff simply cannot find any decent and affordable editions of the obscure British literature she wants to read in New York City. So she contacts Marks & Co., a London antiquarian bookstore, to see if they are able to provide her with what she is looking for. Her inquiry starts a 20-year-long correspondence with Frank Doel, the chief buyer for Marks & Co. 84, Charing Cross Road is based on the letters the two exchanged, and it is a most charming book.
While Helene is a snarky New Yorker, drinking and smoking while writing scripts for TV dramas, Frank is a reserved, married gentleman who sometimes comes across as a little stodgy. What they have in common is a love of books, and that easily overcomes the geographic and cultural distances between them. When Helene starts to send food parcels to the bookstore during England’s post-war rationing, she also starts to meet the other employees of the bookstore. Through everyone’s letters, the reader gets to know all of these people as well. The often short letters are a wonderful reminder of how much a few sentences can mean to and also tell about a person. Reading this little book was a wonderful and sentimental journey. I think my favorite moment was when Helene confides to Frank that some of her successful scripts are based on characters and events she has read about in the books he has sent her.
84, Charing Cross Road became the basis for a play and teleplay. In 1987, it was made into a movie starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. I watched it last week and loved it as much as the book. I thought the movie did a great job staying true to the book and the sentiments behind it. It added just enough visuals and events to round out the characters and make them come to life for someone who has not first read the book. Often, the way I imagine characters and scenes in a book don’t mesh with how the movie presents them, but in this case, they complimented each other perfectly. My favorite scene of the movie is when Frank is sitting on a park bench in the mid-Sixties, watching several young women walking past in very short skirts. It is not sexual in any way; he simply sits there reflecting how much things have changed over the past 10 or 20 years—skirt length included. In his letter to Helene, he says in a wonderfully understated way:
“We had a very pleasant summer with more than the usual number of tourists, including hordes of young people making the pilgrimage to Carnaby Street. We watch it all from a safe distance, though I must say I rather like the Beatles. If the fans just wouldn’t scream so.”
My verdict: Both book and movie are highly recommended.