84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff


Helene Hanff is a freelance writer who loved obscure classics and British literature, much of which, she couldn’t find living in New York.  The story, “84 Charing Cross Road”, takes place in 1949 with Helene noticing an ad for books in the Saturday Review of Literature, by a used bookseller in London named Marks and Company. 

She sends a note and request to the shop manager, Frank Doel, and he replies with a note of his own and the books she requests.  More requests and letters follow, and they are returned with the books requested, and more letters, building a warm friendship between Helene and the store staff that lasts over 20 years.

Helene learns from Nora Doel about the impact of rationing on London in the 1950's, so she sends parcels of food as often as she can of difficult items to find in post war London, along with her letters and birthday cards, all much-appreciated items.

Over the years of correspondence, they discuss politics, sports, religion, and local foods.  The comments about the books requested were interesting, just as you would expect from a book about a bookstore. One letter Helene sent had the poem "Miniver Cheevy by Edwin Arlington Roberinson included  in it. (See poetry section)

A visit to the bookstore was planned and anticipated for years by Helene, but she just kept putting it off. Frank Doel died in 1968 before she was able to make the trip, but she did finally visit in 1971 but the shop was then empty.  The five-story building where Marks & Co. was located during the time the book covers still exists.



“If you happen to pass by 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me? I owe it so much.”

“But I don't know, maybe it's just as well I never got there. I dreamed about it for so many years. I used to go to English movies just to look at the streets. I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for. I said I'd go looking for the England of English Literature, and he nodded and said: "It's there.”  

"Why is it that people who wouldn't dream of stealing anything else think it's perfectly all right to steal books?” 

“I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to "I hate to read new books," and I hollered "Comrade!" to whoever owned it before me.” 

“I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to.”