22 April 2014


'I personally can't think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.'

As I've been working a day a week in a bookshop (a bookshop that also sells secondhand and antiquarian books) for a good few months, I thought it was about time to revisit 84, Charing Cross Road.

The letters between New Yorker Helene Hanff and the staff at the London bookshop Marks & Co, chief buyer Frank Doel in particular, conjure the charms and peculiarities of antiquarian bookselling and all the quaint eccentricities of this bibliophilic world. The twenty-year correspondence is of course fascinating for all the day-to-day details of post-war life, the specific titles requested and then provided, and touches such as books being wrapped for delivery in the pages of old unsalable books. But it is Helene that brings such life to these letters. She is glorious and I would love to be her greatest friend or, indeed, be her.

Helene lives in moth-eaten sweaters and slacks, uses orange crates as book cases, has a sharp tongue and the most genuine love for books. She sits at her typewriter in her apartment and writes requests for titles from London rather than schlepping the however many blocks to a characterless bookstore that can't provide her with what she wants. Through these letters, she charms the booksellers (and also, in time, their families) at Marks & Co with her enthusiasm, humour, parcels of fresh eggs and foodstuffs (she is alarmed to see that a man named Cohen works at the bookshop and writes a hasty note after sending a large ham - 'ARE THEY KOSHER? I could rush a tongue over. ADVISE PLEASE!'), and commentary on the books they send her.

She also teases with gusto: 'What do you do with yourself all day, sit in the back of the store and read? Why don't you try selling a book to somebody?'. (I have to say, on my days in the bookshop I do mentally clock up whole libraries of books I would love to just settle down with in the basement armchair... But the trill of the till brings me back to retail reality.) And she is well aware of her haranguing: 'Poor Frank, I give him such a hard time, I'm always bawling him out for something.' But she gets away with it because she is generous and warm and awesome. I agree with absolutely everything that she writes.

'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 transcriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins. I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has turned my attention to.'

And of the Book-Lovers' Anthology that Frank sends her: 'I shall sprinkle pale pencil marks through it pointing out the best passages to some book-lover yet unborn.'

One of the most lovely things about browsing through and selling secondhand books is discovering the notes, tokens and messages of previous owners between the pages. A favourite find is a black and white photograph tucked in the front of a 1961 edition of The Toad in the Greenhouse by Deenagh Goold-Adams. The photograph captures a toad looking out from its perch and the reverse bears the legend 'Deenagh's toad', and the book is inscribed to the author's cousin. 

I bought a secondhand book from the shop the other day that was part of the haul from a house call to a local book-lover who also happens to be a former Booker Prize winner, now in her eighties. As I was reading this copy of The Secret History by Donna Tartt on the bus, a cheque from the previous owner's chequebook, written out for £30 and dated some time last year, fell from the pages. Thankfully it was not signed...

Helene is not a fan of novels, which is one thing we do not have in common. Yet she redeems herself by admitting to a love of Austen: 'You'll be fascinated to learn (from me that hates novels) that I finally got around to Jane Austen and went out of my mind over Pride & Prejudice which I can't bring myself to take back to the library till you find me a copy of my own.'

And she cannot abide carving, culling and faffing around with texts: 'I will have hideous nightmares involving huge monsters in academic robes carrying long bloody butcher knives labelled Excerpt, Selection, Passage and Abridged.' I experienced a similar horror on discovering that an essay I sweated over in my second year at university was pretty much entirely meaningless as the references were completely incorrect and mangled - I had unwittingly been using an abridged version of Villette and, wholly unknowingly, been missing out on vast swathes of narrative and beautiful Bronte prose. Devastating. 

She is more ballsy, witty and well-read than me. But am I like Helene? Let me count the ways. She spills coffee over dollar bills and, after a quick sponge down, hopes for the best. She revels in John Donne (and his antics with Anne More). And, best of all, on receiving a beautiful book of love poems: 'I shall try very hard not to get to gin and ashes all over it, it's really much too fine for the likes of me.' Story of my life.