84, charing cross road
I'm baffled as to why I haven't managed to read this book before now.
Considering that my recent trip to London was triangulated between three bookstores, Gosh!, Daunt, and Libreria (and food), this collection of letters between author Helene Hanff and the staff of London's Marks & Co. from the decades after World War II is clearly my thing.
These real-life letters encompass two decades but only 97 pages, leaving me wondering whether there was editing of the collection. And though there are only 97 pages worth of (brief) letters, I managed to make my experience last about three weeks - I never wanted the book to end!
It's almost stereotypical, the representations of Hanff and Frank (the primary bookseller with whom she communicated) and the rest of the gang in London. The British group comes off as reserved, exceedingly helpful, and always concerned about propriety. Hanff's voice is gregarious, in-their-faces, often pushing the envelope as to how they might respond to her letters.
But these are the real letters, and real personalities of Hanff and the booksellers and they are adorable and warm and intimate and wonderful.
Hanff was (primarily) a screenwriter who lived in New York City. She first wrote to the staff at Marks & Co. in 1949 asking that they send her inexpensive, used books. The formal FPD (shortly thereafter revealed as Frank) was happy to help, and the twenty year correspondence began. The booksellers send Hanff books she specifically requests and others they think she'll like, and she returns dollars (taking a chance with the mail rather than bothering with a check) and hampers of Christmas and Easter and I-just-really-like-you-guys gifts.
"I houseclean my books every spring and throw out those I'm never going to read again like I throw out clothes I'm never going to wear again. It shocks everybody. My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don't remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON'T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can't think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book."
Though I take advantage of friends who welcome secondhand books, library donations, and little free libraries, I fully agree with Hanff here. There are too many books in the world and I'm not going to have room in my literal physical space or in my mental space to welcome the next favourite if I cling to every copy I ever own.
This is a charming (I'm sure this word has been used to describe this book before but it's apropos), funny, and a bit sad correspondence to which we're incredibly lucky to be privy.