.Book Thursday.

It’s about time I finally cracked this charming little book open. I’ve had it sitting on my bookshelf for a while. The book is a tribute to bookstores, book lovers, and England. This epistolary novel delivered exactly what I expected it to! If it hadn’t already confirmed what I suspected, namely that I’m not the only soul in the world with a book-reading and book-collecting obsession, then Helene Hanff’s experience would have offered the proof I needed.  

What the book is about:

The book consists of the correspondence, from the late 1940s until the late 1960s, between New York writer and bibliophile Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, an employee at Marks & Co. Booksellers at the eponymous address in London. 

Hanff was a voracious, eclectic reader who couldn’t find good American editions of the books she wanted to read. Responding to an advertisement in a periodical, she wrote to Marks & Co., and began her two decades-long epistolary relationship with Doel.

Her chatty, witty and often teasing letters requesting books and Frank’s more conservative, straightlaced missives form the backbone of the work. As their long-distance, customer-bookseller relationship evolves, Hanff occasionally writes to other store employees, as well as Doel’s wife, the couple’s daughters and the family’s elderly neighbour. 

What gradually emerges is a gentle and moving look at two kindred spirits united by their love of the printed word. Hanff’s descriptions of the physical books are so vivid you can practically smell and feel the sturdy covers and the thick, creamy pages. The book also touches on their differing cultures, Hanff’s writing characterized by frank forthrightness, Doel’s, although no less friendly, by a certain civility and politeness.

Their correspondence isn’t just about books, although there are some amusing, illuminating passages about Chaucer, Samuel Pepys, Jane Austen, John Donne and Laurence Sterne. Early on, Hanff also sends care packages of food and stockings to the bookstore, much-needed in a time of post-World War II rationing.

Furthermore, there are subtle glimpses into history and the changing nature of society: bookstore employees emigrate to other countries to try their luck; the Doels save up money to buy their first used car; Queen Elizabeth II is crowned; Beatlemania descends on London.

But what I love most of all is the portrait that emerges of Hanff herself. A strong and independent single woman who would rather send cash in the mail than fuss with getting a money order, she starts out living in a tiny, cramped apartment and works her way up the publishing and radio drama world, drawing on much of her reading of literature (thanks to the packages from 84, Charing Cross Road) to create her plays. 

What I also admire is how uncluttered this book is. There were other letters, but Hanff trusts the reader to do the work to connect the dots. By reading a “reply” we can intuit what’s being replied to. There are no baggy, self-important, italicized passages about what’s in the letters themselves. And the graceful ending is stunning in its understatement. I’m pleased to finally say I can move this book from the nightstand to the “keepers” shelf. I’m just a bit sorry that it ended all too soon. I could have kept reading about Helene and Frank for days yet. This little gem also serves as a reminder to not put off until tomorrow what you’d love to do today. Time is shorter than we imagine, and the people we wish to meet and the places we yearn to visit are waiting for us. The time is now!

One last thought: Likely, you won’t be surprised to learn that secondhand bookstores are one of my most treasured places on earth to visit or even to have my own just like Marks & Co. one day. Used books are amazing. I love thinking about all the other readers who have previously held these books in their hands. Did they like the book but not well enough to keep it at home on that favorite shelf? Did the person pass away years before and not have a book-loving friend or relative to hand the books down to? Or maybe this fellow bookworm simply ran out of space or packed up, moved, and decided to share a beloved book with some stranger in the future that will connect by some invisible thread. 

The movie is also on YouTube starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. Superb!

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