“84 Charing Cross Road” by Helene Hanff – possibly the perfect memoir

When I was a child I read everything that came into our house – my father’s computer magazines and my mother’s nursing information included. At one time my father subscribed to Readers’ Digest which was a magazine with articles and extracts from books and lots of funny snippets and cartoons. Obviously I read that too and in one volume I found a selection of letters between an American writer and a London bookshop stretching over several years just after WW2. The writer was Helene Hanff and when the letters were collected into a book it was titled 84 Charing Cross Road. At that time though I didn’t realise that it was a book and as I had lost touch with the original magazine the letters I had read remained in my mind for years as something I wanted to reread.

I cannot now remember when I realised that these letters were a book but I do remember how I devoured the whole story in letters when I eventually got hold of a copy and how it was even better than I remembered. I have always loved stories told by letter or diary and I attribute a lot of this affection for the form to this book.

The letters come from Ms Hanff who is a TV writer and who wants to educate herself. She has done this by buying a book on literature by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch which then references lots of other books. These were not available in post-war New York so she buys them from an antiquarian bookshop in London by post. The letters are mainly between her and the bookseller Frank Doel and are quirky on her part and calm and professional on his. Ms Hanff realises the problems with rationing in London so she sends food parcels to London and soon develops a relationship with others in the shop which lasts over many years.

This is a memoir and a true story. You can read The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by the same author which tells of her eventual visit to London, years later after the first book is published, and how she meets some of the people she has written to and sees the places she has always wanted to visit. It’s a nice extra to the story and in my book edition both books are bound together but you don’t need the sequel because 84 Charing Cross Road is the perfect memoir – short, illuminating and touching.