In the drab and traumatized post-war London of 1949, Marks & Co., second-hand and antiquarian booksellers at 84, Charing Cross Road, received an enquiry from a Miss Helene Hanff of New York City. It was not the kind of letter they were accustomed to receiving, but it was one that would make history.
Helene Hanff described herself as ‘a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books’ which she was unable to satisfy as ‘all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or grimy, marked-up school copies’. She enclosed a list of her ‘most pressing problems’, one of which was a Latin Bible. Marks & Co.’s polite but formal reply regretted they were unable to supply the particular volume she described, but enquired if she would like them to send ‘a Latin New Testament, also a Greek New Testament, ordinary modern editions in cloth binding’.
When she began writing to Marks & Co., Helene Hanff was in her early thirties, scraping a living as a freelance scriptwriter and journalist. Having dropped out of college, she had decided to take her education into her own hands, and this had already led her down some little-frequented literary pathways which, with the passage of time, became ever more esoteric.
After a while, however, letters between the feisty, eccentric New York writer and the staff of the bookshop in Charing Cross Road began to encompass much more than books. Gradually the distant ‘FDP’ who first signed Marks & Co.’s letters emerged as ‘Frank Doel’, and ‘Faithfully Yours’ gave way to ‘With best wishes’, and eventually simply ‘Love Frank’. Soon the whole office was joining in, slipping in notes about their families, describing life in London, and thanking her for the food parcels she sent from New York.
It was a correspondence that would last for twenty years. By the time Helene Hanff made it to London in 1971, Frank Doel was dead and London was a different place. She never made her fortune as a scriptwriter, but when she finally had the idea of making the letters into a book, it became a bestseller. It’s a gloriously heart-warming read, the account of a friendship – almost a love story – conducted through books that captures the essence of a slower, gentler era.
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