Quite candidly, I didn’t get the big idea.
A slim volume with an address for a title. (Albeit a London, address, lending a smidge of credibility.) Nondescript, by an American lady I had never heard of.
And yet, Mrs. Downs couldn’t keep it in the store. She was constantly tracking down first editions for people and they were downright giddy to receive them.
I never cared much for books of letters, preferring the flowery prose of my Victorian novels and classics. And certainly not a book of letters published in the unappealing epoch of the 1970s.
It just wasn’t me. I smiled at the enthusiasm of Mrs. Downs and her customers. And I always thought of it tenderly in connection with her. But not tenderly enough to tempt me.
And then I read it.
Marooned at home one day with a fever and not quite up to the thundering word-craft of Wuthering Heights on my bedside table, I dipped into a paperback version of 84, Charing Cross Road that I had picked up along the way in memory of my beloved Mrs. Downs. Philip came home a few hours later to find me sobbing into my pillow over it. He took it from me and read it in one sitting, dashing the tears from his eyes when he was done.
I saw now, as an adult, what I had been unprepared to see as a girl. I understood why Mrs. Downs and her compatriots loved this little book with such an undying loyalty. It was her story, and that of countless booksellers and booklovers the world over. It was no wonder that upon its publication it became an instant best-seller, going on to be produced as a play and later a major motion picture starring Anne Bancroft and the inimitable Anthony Hopkins.
84 Charing Cross Road is the correspondence between a brassy American writer and a gentlemanly English bookseller. Spanning two decades, it begins in the post-war days of the 1940s when English books were not only difficult to find in the States, they were prohibitively expensive. Especially for a poor free-lance writer and script reader living in New York City. A chance encounter with an ad in The Saturday Review prompted the first letter, an endearingly-blunt request with a five dollar bill enclosed. The friendship that bloomed almost instantly between Miss Hanff in her brownstone and Mr. Frank Doel in his London shop expanded to include fellow employees and even Frank’s wife, Nora. If Helene’s effusive camaraderie is disarming to the Brits, their loveliness of manner and graciousness begets a family-like devotion in her own heart.
For twenty years the letters—and books—fly back and forth across The Pond. And in that time one of the most heart-warming accounts of human friendship and kindness unfolds. There is an almost spiritual quality to the giving and the receiving that transpires, the careful love of old books and the tending of relationships. Our modern world seems to have very little time for such things anymore.
We watched the movie again last night, for the umpteenth time. It’s an absolutely brilliant adaptation, and for all 100 minutes of it the tears poured down my face in constant succession. This story has had my heart for so long—it conjures Mrs. Downs and the days working in her shop; my own experience with English bookstores and the cherished volumes I’ve carted home over the years; the passion my husband and I share for a lovely binding and a gilt-edged page and a smooth leather cover.
But I was suddenly encountering it on a completely different level. I’ve always identified with Helene, unwrapping her English treasures in her dingy apartment and running her hands over them with a lingering reverence. But this time I was the Frank in the story. The Mrs. Downs. The procurer and provider of the treasures. I saw the joy flicker over his face as he came across a title he knew she would love and the somewhat abashed happiness with which he received her overtures of friendship. I even got choked up over the scene of a shop girl wrapping up Helene’s first shipment of books.
I have seen the same kind of sympathy spring up right here in my own little shop, the same joy of kindred kindness extended to me in your notes, the heartfelt revelations of the faces behind the orders, the emails telling me that the packages have arrived safely at their new homes. I have been overwhelmed and humbled by your response and your joy. Thank you, kind friends.
There’s nothing quite like the love of books for the beginning of a friendship, is there?