A Treasure Hiding in the Stacks

Have you ever had the experience where it seems like the world is conspiring to get you to read a certain book? Well, it recently happened to me.

I was minding my own business, shelf-reading in the stacks. (For the uninitiated, shelf-reading is a common task at the library. We go up and down the rows of books meticulously checking the labels on their spines to make sure they are shelved where they belong. As you might expect, when books get into the wrong place, it’s really hard to find them!) So anyway, there I was shelf-reading along, and I happened to notice a very slim volume with a title I recognized: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff.

I had seen a movie by the same title some years previously, and I remembered that it was just wonderful. I was intrigued and thought that maybe I’d read the book one of these days...Then a few days later, there was one of those social media things going around where you're supposed to post a photo of a favorite book, and there on my sister’s Facebook page was a photo of the same book. Quite a coincidence—especially because it’s an older book and nonfiction to boot! I was definitely supposed to read this book.

And so I did, and not surprisingly, I loved it even more than the movie. As I mentioned, it is a very thin volume—you can easily read it in an afternoon. And if you do, you’ll wish it could last forever. In the 1940s, Helene Hanff was a book-lover and young writer trying to make a living in New York City. She wrote to a bookstore in London (located at 84, Charing Cross Road) in search of some hard-to-find books. She continued ordering books through the 1940s and 1950s, and through letters she developed a friendship with the folks who worked at the bookstore.

The resulting book is a collection of letters going back and forth between them. During rationing in England in the 1940s, she managed to have packages sent to them with foods that they could not otherwise find, and they later reciprocated and sent her an appropriately meaningful gift.

It is difficult to describe just how sweet and uplifting 84, Charing Cross Road is. Hanff has an amusing and smart-alecky letter-writing style that is enjoyable. And watching the somewhat stiff Brits loosen up is a joy. Eventually, secretaries and spouses get into the letter-writing action as well. These days it can be easy to forget how kind, caring, and generous people can be to those they don’t even really know. This book is a wonderful reminder of humans at their best. It’s like my grandma’s tapioca pudding—warm, sweet, and just makes you feel cozy.

Most definitely, reading this book is a wonderful escape from the angry rhetoric we are exposed to on a daily basis. Kindness and caring still exist; people still care about each other. Even though this takes place 50+ years ago, you can believe it is still true after being reminded by reading this book. Just writing about it makes me want to go home and read it again!

After I read the book, I decided I needed to see the movie again to know if it was as wonderful as I remembered. The movie version of 84, Charing Cross Road came out in 1986 (in the U.K.) and it stars Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins (how could it not be delightful?). I enjoyed it every bit as much the second time as the first. I highly recommend it, and I don’t think it matters whether you read the book first or see the movie first. They are both terrific. I suggest that you check out the pair of them and have yourself a lovely weekend escape.

-Jill Mickel is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.

84, Charing Cross Road

84 Charing Cross Road

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