"84 Charing Cross Road" is a collection of letters over a 20-year period between Helene Hanff, who lived in New York, and Frank Doel (and others) of Marks & Co, a small bookseller in London, hence the title of the book.
The second part of the volume "The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street" describes Hanff's first visit to London to meet many of the people she got to know through her letters, and to see many of the places made famous by English literature..
Hanff is an acute observer of people and places, and she has a gift for capturing them in a few pithy words. She also has a dry sense of humour.
Today, we buy our books online from Amazon and the like, or we drink coffee and browse in the commercial friendliness of a real bookshop. It's all very efficient, and we get inexpensive books, but it has no soul. "84 Charing Cross Road" is about a very different era, a time when a book-lover like Helene Hanff would write to her favourite bookseller, who would in turn write personally back to her about the books she wanted and his efforts to find them for her.
When I lived in London twenty years ago, I frequently visited the wonderful bookshops that still existed along Charing Cross Road and the adjacent area. Labyrinths of shelves, piled to the ceiling. Even then they existed in a time warp, fending off the encroachments of Borders, Amazon and a host of other efficient booksellers. Maybe they are slowly disappearing now, just as 84 Charing Cross Road did when the owners died.
Reading this book was a bitter-sweet experience for me. I look back on an idealised time through the rosiest of rose-tinted glasses and I mourn for the vanished days so evocatively described in this volume. Times when a small commercial transaction like buying books meant more than an impersonal exchange of printer matter for a credit card slip, when people had time to talk to each other as well.
But perhaps it was never really so. We idealise the past, and books like this make very dangerous reading for lovers of English literature and history, because they encourage us to wallow in nostalgia.
Readers who love books, not only for their contents, but also for their physical appeal and smell, will readily identify with this book. The internet and e-Books have a place as sources of information and enjoyment, but they cannot replace the tactile and sensual presence of real books. A real book, passed down the years, with its marks of time and perhaps inscriptions and notes by vanished readers, will always be a treasure.