I have found that often the objects I uncover–especially the books–lead me to rediscover people or stories that were once known by a great many people but have since been lost to time. This is one of those books. I discovered 84 Charing Cross Road on a bookshelf in a largely liquidated home in California, next to a number of much older, better-worn classics.
This is a story told through letters. In 1949, Miss Helene Hanff sees an advertisement in the Saturday Review of Literature from an antiquarian bookseller in London. She writes to inquire about some books she has been seeking in the US, but has been unable to find, except in “very expensive rare editions, or in Barnes & Noble’s grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies.”
The reader is carried into Miss Hanff’s living room in the Upper East Side of New York City, tossed about on her bookshelves, and introduced to bits and pieces of her life. There is never a complete picture of either her life or of the life at the bookstore in London or of the books she requests, but there is enough. What is left out brings to life what is written.
This book gave me a strong feeling of nostalgia for the days when people wrote to people, rather than machines to machines. It also reminded me of why I love old books.
Most of the books mentioned in the correspondence between Miss Hanff and the bookshop were not familiar to me. The deep irony here is that this very book, 84 Charing Cross Road, is most likely not familiar to you, dear reader, though at the time of its publication it sold well enough to eventually be made into a movie and to earn itself a plaque on the wall of the building at 84 Charing Cross Road in London. Similarly, it seems that many of the books mentioned in 84 Charing Cross Road were themselves once quite poplar, though now perhaps a bit more obscure.
After reading the first 49-or-so pages, I found myself hungry for a time when things were tangible, when being less than wealthy was quaint, when libraries were essential, and when the first floor of a brownstone on the Upper East Side could be rented on the cheap. I even found myself wanting to try “tinned tongue,” which actually sounds just fine to me.
As with many of the objects I bring home from my searches, I loved this one for how it made me feel. The book left me with the sense that the world is a very sad place, but sad precisely because it contains little fissures where deep friendship, connection and excitement can leak in. Once these good things enter into our lives, though they may surprise us at first, they are soon accepted as a matter of course. We don’t recognize their true value until they are gone. As soon as they are gone, we begin to question why, oh why indeed, we didn’t recognize them for what they were when they were with us.
Loss is painful because of love, but without love, what is life, really?
Object: 84 Charing Cross Road
Source: Estate sale in California
Notes: Book by Helene Hanff published in 1970. This is the first edition, 7th printing.
Status: My private collection