What we're reading: 84 Charing Cross Road

Among the varied picks for issue 32's reading recommendations is this gentle story by Helene Hanff. Oh Comely's features ed, Frances Ambler shares why it's stayed with her.

Oh Comely's What We're Reading recommendations, issue 32. Photo: Liz Seabrook.

Oh Comely's What We're Reading recommendations, issue 32. Photo: Liz Seabrook.

This book is one of the cornerstones of my lending library. Soothing and heartening, I recommend a reading every time you’re feeling disenchanted with life. I reckon it’s virtually impossible not to be charmed by this simple – but real-life – story of how, through their correspondence, a wise-cracking, forthright New Yorker manages to infiltrate the lives and hearts of the staff of a rather more formal and restrained English antiquarian bookshop. 

It begins with a letter in October 1949 from (Miss) Helene Hanff of East 95th Street, New York City to Messrs Marks & Co. at 84 Charing Cross Road, London, announcing that she is a “poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books”, and enclosing her literary list of “most pressing problems”. Through her subsequent missives, Helene – an anglophile with a taste for Donne, Austen and Chaucer – attempts to “puncture that proper British reserve” using some less-than-proper humour, coupled with some straight-talking and some pure American gumption. 

It works. By December, Helene is sending the shop food hampers, and ends up in
correspondence not only with the shop staff, but also with their wives, children and elderly neighbours. In finishing exactly 20 years from the first one, in October 1969, the letters span rationing, a Royal Coronation and Beatlemania. People’s lives shift too: children grow up, get married, become older and die. 84 Charing Cross Road is a gentle book about how magic can be created in the most everyday of lives, as well as being a love letter to the power of literature in bridging years, backgrounds, oceans. 

Helene’s intense love for the shop from afar bestows the address with a kind of enchantment. Her final letter instructs a friend visiting London to visit the shop and “kiss it for me”. On my own pilgrimage, I was disappointed to discover a McDonalds in the place where Marks & Co. once stood. This book is delightful enough to make you overlook that detail – read this book, and you’ll want to go and kiss it too. 

Words: Frances Ambler. Photo: Liz Seabrook. 

Read our other reviews for the books pictures in Oh Comely issue 32, out now.