84 Charing Cross Road

Charing Cross Road is smack dab in the middle of the theatre district of London. It has at least four major theatres on it, including Wyndham’s and the Palace. The street runs right next to Leicester Square and into the mad roundabout that borders Trafalgar Square.

I couldn’t escape the street while I was there as I spent a lot of time in that area, going to shows and galleries. It’s insanely busy with cars, buses, and pedestrians at all hours of the day. Frazzled tourists speaking any number of languages bump into impeccably dressed locals on their way to or from work.

One afternoon I had some time to spare so I wandered up and down Charing Cross, taking photos of the theatres and the shops. To be fair, I was looking for one shop in particular. I knew it wouldn’t be there, but I had to look.

84 Charing Cross Road. The former site of Marks & Co., Booksellers.

See, the address is also the title of one of my most favorite books. It’s just a little book, less than 100 pages, but immensely charming and spunky. The book – or letters, actually, as it is entirely composed of real-life correspondence – tells the true tale of a struggling New York City writer and book lover who is looking for some real books, not the shabby editions we make over here in the U.S. She sees an ad for a British bookseller and starts requesting books in 1949. Her main communicator on the other end is FPD, who becomes Frank Doel, and then just Frank as they write back and forth for 20 years. She sends the shop care packages during the rationing following the Second World War, and they send her the books her heart desires. They become a community: her and Frank, Cecily, Megan, Frank’s wife Nora. But they do not meet.

I’m not going to tell you how it ends. I will tell you this: it is bittersweet. But it makes me want to run out and find a British bookseller to correspond with for twenty years.

One of the reasons I love the story so much though is that it is a snapshot of that time of life. The experience could never happen today, not in the days of Amazon pushing out all small – and large – booksellers. Not in the days of e-mails and IMs and instant international correspondence (Heck, I emailed my mother in Canada from Papua New Guinea – Papua New Guinea!). And not in the days of impersonal business, eBay, and etsy, where no contact with the seller is necessary or even encouraged. We are left on our own to trudge through the murky waters of commerce, wanting everything instantly and entirely to our satisfaction.

This can be a good thing. But it doesn’t make for a good book and it makes for a somewhat sad life.

In this book, there are letters, letters, written on typewriters. Helene yells in ALL CAPS at Frank for being slow, and he writes back, wry in his British sort of way. You get to know all of their personalities through their words – Helene and Frank and Nora – and their affection for each other. You see their love for books and the written word.

There are still a few small bookshops on Charing Cross Road. They are tiny and dingy, everything a bookshop should be, old books piled floor to ceiling on sagging shelves. You are more likely to find a mid-nineteenth century cloth-bound edition more than a mass market paperback.

But 84 Charing Cross Road is a Pizza Hut. Either that or a Subway – I can’t remember now. I really couldn’t believe it. I mean, I knew the shop had gone out of business, but now it’s something so … grotesquely American? There is a plaque that I vaguely remember seeing, but I didn’t even take a photo; it was too sad.

Even so, we still have the book. We still have the thoughts and literary desires of Helene and Frank in their own words. And we have a snapshot of a post-World War lifestyle and friendship fostered by the love of books

That’ll have to do. But please, read this book. And write a letter while you’re at it.

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