In June, 1971, a slim volume by a little-known, middle-aged American writer, Helene Hanff, was published in Britain. Called 84 Charing Cross Road, it was a most unlikely bestseller – simply a collection of letters between the impecunious book-lover Hanff, in New York, and the staff of Marks & Co, an antiquarian bookshop in London.
The correspondence spanned two decades – from Britain’s post-war austerity to the height of the Swinging Sixties – and was full of warmth, humour and humanity. If our notion of the “special relationship” between Britain and America means anything at all, it is embodied in the pages of Hanff’s little book.
It all began in October 1949 as a straightforward business correspondence. Having seen an advert for Marks & Co, describing them as specialists in out-of-print books, Hanff wrote to them with a wish list of titles she’d been unable to acquire in New York. “I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books,” she explained. “If you have clean second-hand copies of any of the books on the list, for no more than $5 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?”
The order was dealt with by the shop’s manager, Frank Doel, who sent her some of the items she wanted and promised to look out for the others. He addressed his letter “Dear Madam” and signed it “Yours faithfully, FPD”. All very formal, very British. But it wouldn’t stay that way for long. Hanff’s next letter enclosed payment, praised the “soft vellum and cream-coloured pages” of the books, which put to shame her “orange-crate bookshelves”, and ended with a PS: “I hope ‘madam’ doesn’t mean over there what it means over here.” She had an insatiable hunger for the classic works of English literature – Jane Austen, John Donne, Chaucer, Samuel Pepys. She sent the shop further orders and more books were dispatched to her Manhattan bedsit. Then in December she had a surprise for Marks & Co.
Having heard about the food rationing in effect in Britain, Hanff sent the staff “a small Christmas present” of foodstuffs most Brits hadn’t seen for years, including a large ham.