My London Your London

A cultural guide

Helene Hanff and the Bookshops of Today’s Charing Cross Road

Somehow it seems, wherever and whenever you visit a place, you’ve just missed a golden age. You always should have found this Thai island 10 years ago, “when it was paradise”. And when you read 84, Charing Cross Road, it seems as though just after the Second World War was a paradisiacal age of bookselling, when dedicated experts spent their days sifting through classy hardback editions of obscure classics, just waiting to fill the orders of a New York woman – Helene Hanff, who describes herself as “a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books”.

She complained, in a letter of October 5, 1949, to Marks & Co Booksellers at 84, Charing Cross Road, that decent editions were impossible to obtain in America. That was the start of a beautiful, long-distance friendship between herself and the staff of the shop, and, finally, their relatives, that continued into 1969. Together the collection of the correspondence forms one of the finest epistolary books I’ve ever read.

In such few words, a lasting bond was form, cemented with American food parcels that Hanff sent to obviously hungry post-war Britain. She’s certainly the strongest personality in the book. You can only imagine the reaction in “proper” London of 1949 to the epistle that started: “Kindly inform the Church of England they have loused up the most beautiful prose ever written, whoever told them to tinker with the Vulgate Latin? They’ll burn for it, you mark my words.”

Frank Doel is the chief correspondent from the bookshop side. He starts out all proper, professional English gentleman, but gradually unwinds, while Cecily Farr steps into an immediately friendly relationship and is soon sending detailed instructions for the proper preparation of Yorkshire pudding, to someone who has never seen and tasted it.

It is one of those books that should be on anyone’s must-read list, but perhaps it would be better to read it after visiting the modern Charing Cross Road. While it is still one of the primary clusters of bookshops in London – rivalled only by the group of second-hand/specialist stores around the British Museum, just to the north-east, it has fallen prey to the untender grasp of commercialism and development.

No 84 is now a Chinese medicine shop prominently advertising “herbal Viagra”, and Borders, with its inevitably Starbucks branch, has muscled in on the old traditions of Foyles and Blackwell’s. (Although it must be confessed that its “open until 11pm” convenience does on occasion come in handy, when you emerge from the theatre just desperate to read the text of the play you just saw, or clutching your head at the memory that it is young cousin John’s birthday tomorrow.)

Foyles – the grand independent store of the street – is not the institution that it was, which by all accounts is a good thing. It still has enormous specialist collection of music, of foreign language books, and pretty well every academic subject that you can imagine, but actually making a purchase is not the behind-the-Berlin-Wall-style drama that visitors until recently “enjoyed”. (BTW: It is included in this interesting “informal walk” around informal education in London.)

They’ve even put in a lift, and comprehensible signage; the convenience clearly outweighing any loss of atmosphere. And Ray’s Jazz Cafe on the first floor is a classy contrast to the Starbucks opposite – excellent organic cakes and really good coffee – an ideal place to sit, relax, and maybe flick desultorily through the papers. (It also has regular music events.)

Hidden away at the top is the Silver Moon section, a sadly cut-down version of what used to be the stand-alone women’s shop across the road. It seems to be morphing into a gay/lesbian section. Nothing wrong with that, but sad that the tradition of the “women’s bookshop” seems to be dying out. (There’s an interesting article about working at Foyles, and more about its history, here.)

If you’re visiting London and your bags have already passed the point of accepting any more books, for something lighter they also have a rather good collection of bookish gifts on the ground floor. If someone really needs a Virginia Woolf Penguin mug, you’ll probably be able to find it here, and get a proper Foyles carrier bag into the bargain.

But if it is the full second-hand bookshop experience you are looking for, then you must cross the road and head down the hill, where a line of traditional stores still hold the line – just – against the march of commercialism. Quinto, one of the largest of them, on the corner of Lichfield Street, isn’t a bad place to start. It is good on history and women’s issues, and I’m told it is also strong on militaria (not my field).

Down in the baesment, amid weirdly creaky narrow corridors and blind alleys, with that odd mixed smell of dust, leather and crumbling cellulose, you really know you’re in a proper bookshop. At the other end of the run of the traditional bookshops is the aptly named Murder One, specialising in … you guessed it. Probably a good idea to visit this last, for Quinto with visions of dripping knives and headless bodies is not recommended.

Murder One is not a bad choice for second-hand crime, mostly the popular authors, but you can find the odd rare survival of Fifties pulp and similar. Most of my Dorothy L. Sayers came from here – old, battered hardbacks have so much more character than modern paperbacks. They can be variably priced. Try asking; I once had a book reduced by several pounds, without asking, because the shop assistant picked it up, looked it over dubiously, then concluded: “He can’t charge you that much!”

Such still are the joys of Charing Cross Road – bookselling at its idiosyncratic best, for now at least. Enjoy it while it lasts.

The Guardian collected readers’ recommendations for London bookshops, in all parts of the city. Or you can do a walk around occult bookshops. A few of the other shops are listed on Wikipedia, together with a short account of their tenuous financial circumstances.

Helen Hanff died in 1997.

1 Comment

  1. 84 Charing Cross Road is now 84 Cambridge Circus. the premises is occupied by ‘All Bar One’ (a wine bar as the name suggests).
    Check out the history of Marks & Co at 84 Charing Cross Road – Revisited.

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