Sixty years ago today, on October 5, 1949, Helene Hanff wrote a letter to a bookstore in London. Marks & Co. was located at 84 Charing Cross Road; Miss Hanff was located on East 95th Street in New York City. She'd read their ad in the Saturday Review (a magazine once influential and now dead) and asked if they could send her "clean secondhand copies" of books on a list she enclosed. Hazlitt, Stevenson, Leigh Hunt––she loved books of essays. Also English authors, mostly 19th century. (In the letter she disparages the "grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies" available at Barnes & Noble, which was where NYU students flogged their books.) This initial note began a twenty-year friendship.
Helene Hanff was a 33 year-old writer of radio and television scripts and unproduced stage plays. She never visited Marks & Co. Friends of hers who visited London stopped by the shop and described its details and its people to her; that's the closest she came. By the time she could afford the fare to London the store had closed and her book-dealer correspondent, Frank Doel, had died. Hanff didn't particularly like travel anyway. She traveled through books, and the books traveled to her. Despite her love of cigarettes and martinis, she lived to be 80. Helene Hanff appears once in A Book of Ages, writing that first of many letters. In 1970 the two-way correspondence was collected into a book of its own, which I still reread occasionally. It remains in print.
I remember reading 84 Charing Cross Road when it was first published. I was a 14 year-old book collector, and obtained most of my books not by catalog but by bicycle. I rode the ten or so miles from suburban Minneapolis to Nelson's Book Shop and Oudal's Used and Rare located downtown, bringing the books home in a backpack. Hanff and I had similar tastes, though I preferred Charles Lamb to Hazlitt and Hunt. I still have the books I bought then, the prices I paid remain unerased inside the endpapers. The 1900 Dent edition of The Last Essays of Elia (with illustrations by C. E. Brock) cost $2.