Wednesday, February 23, 2011

84 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2

84 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2

This was the address of the famous, antiquarian booksellers Marks and Co. It isn't in business anymore. It is now an All Bar One. The plaque below commemorates this book shops former location.

There is a place where Marks and Co. still exists however. In the autobiographical tale by Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road. This story was made into a play, and later, a movie.

I watched the film yesterday. It had haunted me since my teens when I swooned over Sir Anthony Hopkins, all soulful eyes and poignant delivery, as he quoted Yeats' He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.

"Had I the heaven's embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
tread softly because you tread on my dreams."

Friends, you know I am a fool for words like these. People don't write this way anymore, however much I wish they did. Helene Hanff felt the same. In 1949, she sent an inquiry to Marks and Co. and it caught the eye of Frank Doel. Ms. Hanff wanted books she couldn't find in America. She wanted old books that were out of fashion even then, and Mr. Doyle searched these treasures out for her. Platonic soul-mates, Hanff and Doyle corresponded for nearly 20 years until Frank's death in 1968 from peritonitis. Their letters are the heart of 84 Charing Cross Road. This story is for the romantic who has a passion for literature, history, England, star-crossed friendship, and old book shops.

It's also about putting ink to fine, stiff paper and mailing your words across the world to a person you care about. Helene and Frank shared one another's lives without ever having met. Their relationship was a true meeting of the minds. As a poor New York writer, Helene could not afford to travel to London, though it was her fondest dream. A bookman of the highest order, Frank Doel brought England to Helene by sending her some of its best literature.

Emails would not suffice in this story. They are too immediate and sterile. They cannot be long-anticipated, received and pored over, wrapped in a silk ribbon, and put away in a special box. They cannot be cherished and touched while being re-read.

What do you think, friends? Do you still enjoy receiving letters or writing them? Are you sad that hundred-year-old book shops are being crowded out these days? Have you ever been to Charing Cross Road?

Choose any question you like or invent another, I'd just love to hear from you.

Happy writing!


  1. I love getting physical pieces of mail that someone took the time to hand write and mail to me with love. I still get excited going to the mailbox and seeing if there is anything other than bills or junk mail in there. :O)

  2. I love getting letters. I recently did a letter project in which I wrote letters for a month. It was work, but so much fun! I miss anticipating the mail.

  3. All Bar One is the DEVIL! Seriously, I've never been to a blander bar, EVER!

    I love getting letters, but I'm too lazy to write my own.

  4. Thanks for the movie recommendation--sounds like something I should look for. Yes, I've been to Charing Cross Rd many times--I'll have to look for the plaque next time.

  5. I worry about bookshops. Borders is closed, bookshops are rapidly going out of business, and although my books are being made into eBooks, I would not enjoy snuggling down with a cold Kindle, much prefer paper.

  6. Oh the film - the film is DELICIOUS!!!!!! :-) I love that scene where the bookshop employees unpack Ms. Hanf's package and it's all "oooh spam"! and "oooh stockings - silk!" and Mr Doel is carefully handing them out to everyone! I love that!!!!

    I still write very long letters but I cheat! I type my letters and print them off!! This is only because my handwriting is most atrocious!!!!

    Of course I love receiving letters too - cards and letters. I keep them all!!!

    All Bar One is stinky and is unfortunately taking over most of the West End these days!

    Take care

  7. I'm more of a card person, and the rest of my correspondence is email. I've grown to like it, actually, and haven't written a letter in, oh, I'd say, years.

  8. I've never gotten a handwritten letter. I'd love to get one though!

  9. I love writing them more than receiving them. I have never been to the location, but I wish I had been. It is sad to see them phased out.

    Roxy, you would have been a push over for Sir Walter Raleigh.

    To Melissa: Tell me where to send it, and I would be happy to handwrite a letter.

  10. I have a few friends that I handwrite letters to, and vice versa, but we sometimes go years between letters. It's sad, but it truly is hard to find the time in the on-demand world that we live in. I do make sure that my daughter hand-writes all of her thank-you notes (as do I). That is something I hope never goes out of fashion!

  11. I am sad that 100-year-old bookstores are closing. I still write letters from time to time and I still like receiving them.

    Technology moves on.

    Thanks for the pictures as a reminder of what was.

  12. Thanks for your comments! It's interesting to see who enjoys letters and who would rather email. In the end, it's all writing, right?

    JJ- If Sir Walter Raleigh could charm a jaded Queen, he would have had no trouble with me! I think I'd have been an easy mark for Lord Byron as well.

    It's so nice to see comments from friends who haven't been by for a while. Good to hear from you!

  13. My husband and i both loved these stories and I gave him a vintage limited edition copy a few years ago for our anniversary.

    It is so sad to hear how people aren't reading real books anymore. I could never read from an e-reader as I need to hold, feel and smell my books...I love them!

    Best wishes always,

  14. I enjoy writing letters, I'm not sure how much other people enjoy reading my letters - once I get started I just keep rambling on and on. My emails have been described as essays before. As for handwritten vs email, I enjoy the crazed freneticism of writing a long email at 1 o'clock in the morning. Although sometimes the guilt the next morning can be as bad as any hangover! Handwritten letters tend to force a certain discipline of concentration on the writer and are I think generally more lucid and thoughtful.

    I definitely want to see this film you've recommended now. It is a shame to see such a character-filled old bookstore crowded out by a bland pub that is in fact part of chain of bars. But I didn't shed a tear for Borders - I've been musing over an idea that in fact bookstores, especially bookstore chains, tend to cheapen books a bit. You buy one, read it, throw it out after. I think that bookstore chains have in fact been crowding out local municipal libraries. I think the library experience is a lot more reverential towards books - it would be a sorry day indeed if they ever closed my local library.

  15. Foyles are still there.
    In the 80's when I first lived in London, Foyles was one of the places that made it home. It has survived many a heave in the book market and outlived Waterstones -a good bookseller, but an incidental one- and other chains that sprang up.
    Just scan the name, it will flag in the first four.

  16. Yes, yes and yes! To all three questions :-)
    On the other hand, I never seem to have anyone to send letters to... Oh my... Imagine if we did that as a blogfest? Sort of a round robin - say, I wrote you a letter, and you wrote one to the next person, and so on. Then we could scan them all and put 'em up on our blogs.

  17. I have been dying to see that movie for years! I used to write letters all the time but no one ever wrote back. And now with the internet, I tried it again, but still no one ever wrote back so I gave up.

    Letter writing is such a dying art, it's a shame.

    My dream is to go to London and see where all the dead people hung out. Jane Austen, the Bronte's. Byron. You know.

  18. Aww, Anne. I would totally write you a letter, and I imagine the letters you wrote brought a big smile to the faces of your readers. I'm coming over to visit your blog. It's always fun over there!

  19. Vince- Thank you for bringing Foyles to my attention! I researched a bit online, and these are a very interesting group of stores. If it hasn't been done already, a book should be written about the Foyle family. Christina Foyle in particular.

  20. The great thing is that through stories, books, music, movies, and theatre, we can relive these older times in their most romantic forms. A real life letter in someone's own hand that required a stamp and an effort to send it - ya, that is special.