When I was young, I was convinced both my parents were readers of the highest degree. Turns out, as I got older, I learned this was true of my father, but not so much on the side of my mother. However, the reason I lived under this misconception was that nearly every Sunday, one of us children would sit behind my mother and play with her hair while she read to us aloud. My father may be the main influence on what I read as I was growing up, but my mother was a strong influence on how I HEARD the books in my head.
Mom would read to us until she started reading two lines at once (believe me, it can be done . . . it’s hilarious). At this point she would declare she was too tired to go on (which was true), and we would groan and beg for her to keep going. She wisely said no, as the deal was to play with her hair while she read and playing with her hair when she was tired was like knocking her out cold. It took us quite a long time to realize that playing with her hair contributed to the tired problem as well.
Usually, in this deal, we also got to pick what she read to us. Every Christmas I would demand Holly & Ivy, a story about an orphan and a doll. It’s very long and usually took several readings to get through (darn hair-playing). There were some pretty predictable repeat reads (Moo, Baa, La-la-la was a favorite, we got to make noises) and a monthly magazine that often got air-time.
However, the book I remember best was the one book my mother chose. One day she came home from the library with a triumphant grin on her face and a thin, hard-back book. She had us kids gather ’round, and told us someone needed to play with her hair because she had a book to read. Seeing as this was mid-week, we were surprised but happy to comply. We got extra reading! What my mother read that day (and almost every night for the next couple weeks) was 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff.
Loud, brash New York writer Helene Hanff hated to read ugly books. Staid, gentle Frank Doel ran a second-hand bookshop, owned by Marks & Co., across the Pond. Somehow, this turned into a twenty-year correspondence. 84, Charing Cross Road is a collection of many of these letters. Some of them had us rolling on the floor laughing. Helene is a hoot, and Frank is so steady.
Unfortunately, all good things must end. The correspondence ended with the tragic death of Frank, as did our nearly nightly reading. Not too long thereafter, Mom quit reading to us except for special occasions and holidays. We were getting old enough to read to ourselves, or at the very least to each other.
To this day, though, Mom is always still good for a head rub and 84, Charing Cross Road, though perhaps not together. There’s something so charming about the two main people in this book (there are letters from other friends and staff at No. 84). In one of her letters Helene says:
I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to “I hate to read new books,” and I hollered “Comrade!” to whoever owned it before me.
I feel much the same way about both Helene and Frank. Though, if there were to be a repeat of this situation, I would bet I would be Frank more than Helene.
Still, I find much of myself in Helene. One of the best entries is when she asks for a book of poems:
I require a book of love poems with spring coming on. No Keats or Shelley, send me poets who can make love without slobbering–Wyatt or Jonson or somebody, use your judgement. Just a nice book preferably small enough to stick in a slacks pocket and take to Central Park.
Well, don’t just sit there! Go find it! i swear i dont know how that shop keeps going.
And, not too long later, to Cecily, one of the girls in the shop:
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, if he gets ulcers I did it.
Both of those letters are very early in the book/correspondence, about six months in (it started in October 1949). Frank, on the other hand, takes until April 1952 to proudly reply:
Dear Helene (you see I don’t care about the files anymore),
You will be pleased to know that we have purchased a private library which includes a very nice copy of Walton’s Compleat Angler and hope to have it to send to you next week, price approximately $2.25 and your credit balance with us is more than enough to cover it.
Informality did not suit Frank for long, clearly, though he ever after called her Helene.
As the years passed, soon the letters from the others petered out and it was just Frank and Helene, with an occasional note from Nora (Frank’s wife). The letters were more about finding work, children, and life as it happens than books.
But there were always books. Books are what brought them together, and it was a recent request for books that brought news of Frank’s death to Helene. It was a form letter from a personal secretary, but at the end she did seem to understand as she added a personal note about Frank’s service to the company. Frank was well-loved. In a letter from Nora, she mentioned just how well:
[H]e was the most well-adjusted person with a marvelous sense of humour, and now I realize such a modest person, as I have had letters from all over to pay him tribute and so many people in the book trade say he was so knowledgeable and imparted his knowledge with kindness to all and sundry. If you wish it, I could send them to you.
If Nora Doel did and Helene chose to not publish those letters, I’m angry and jealous. If she didn’t, I’m just jealous. I want to read those letters. I feel as if I know Frank, I wish I could know him as more than just Helene’s Frank.
This book is, as I have mentioned, hilarious and painfully witty at times. One of the most distinct memories of Momma reading this book was when she–quite unexpectedly–yelled, “WHAT KIND OF BLACK PROTESTANT BIBLE IS THIS?” It took us quite some time to realize this was Helene’s reaction to the Anglican Bible rather than our mother being quite suddenly offended by the book. It took even more time to calm the giggles.
Without hesitation or regret, I would recommend 84, Charing Cross Road to anyone who loves books, or is seeking a way to understand one who does. It’s a romance with the written word, not between two people, but the romance is still there. Frank and Helene respected one another enormously, but they ever respected the books first and foremost. I have a kindred soul in the quiet Frank, but also in the Helene who revels in the beauty, feel, and smell of almost every book she receives from Marks & Co.
It may be silly, but when I go to London this summer, I don’t want to be the tourist who goes and sees the Tower or Bridge of Sighs. I want to see No. 84, still standing there, placid oasis for book lovers everywhere. I should be so lucky.
Then again, I have been lucky to know No. 84 my whole life. Perhaps I shouldn’t expect everything of the universe just yet.