84, Charing Cross Road, the series of letters between a second-hand bookseller in London and a buyer in New York were written between 1949 and 1969. The subject seems an unlikely best seller, however, after first being published in 1971 by Alfred Knoff it was reprinted seven times by 1977. It went to paperback with Futura in 1976 as a double-header with the sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and was reprinted a further 11 times within the next three years. It has been in print ever since.
It elicits such charm, that whatever claims book buyers had made on Charing Cross in prior decades, it was now romanticized all the more. A bibliophile should be charming, it goes with their honesty and almost paternalistic concern, as Helen Hanff the author of 84, Charing Cross Road found:
Your six dollars arrived safely, but we should feel very much easier if you would send remittances by postal money order in future, as this would be quite a bit safer for you than entrusting dollar bills to the mails.”
FPD for MARKS & CO
A. C. Ward describes in A Literary Journey in 1943 the origins of Charing Cross Road:
The cutting of the splendid Kingsway from Holborn to the Strand at the beginning of the century opened up an unsalubrious part of London… the sweeping away of Booksellers’ Row (Holywell Street – roughly in the vicinity of the present crescent of Aldwych), where the second-hand book and print shops huddled, is regretted by lovers of the picturesque, though it was more squalid than romantic.
The vulnerability of these small businesses continued and is high lighted also in A. C. Ward’s assessment in 1943 and by Helen Hanff’s discovery of Post War Britain realities in 1949:
Charing Cross Road continues to be the lineal but more hygienic descendant of Booksellers’ Row; yet the competition of big business has had to be faced even in the book world, and the little shops have appeared to dwindle dispiritedly before their new and glamorous rivals.
I enclose a dollar which Brian (British boy friend of Kay upstairs) says will cover the 8/ I owe you… Brian told me you are all rationed to 2 ounces of meat per family per week and one egg per person per month and I am simply appalled. He has a catalogue from a British firm here which flies food from Denmark to his mother, so I am sending a small Christmas present to Marks & Co. I hope there will be enough to go round, he says the Charing Cross Road bookshops are ‘all quite small.
Sir Stanley Unwin, at the time of buying into publisher George Allen & Co. Ltd., in 1914, observed:
The total wage for the entire staff was less than 20 pounds a week, yet when Friday came even that paltry sum could not be found and ‘our Mr Ellard’ had to hurry to Charing Cross with a bag full of books to sell them as second-hand to make up the missing amount.
In a postscript to 84, Charing Cross Road the publishers write, “Sadly we report that Marks and Co. ceased business in December 1970, as the site at 84, Charing Cross Road is to be redeveloped.”
Journalist John Mendes in his Finch’s London tour guide written in 1973 could still find charm in Charing Cross:
On the eastern edge of Soho, Charing Cross Road runs to book shops. Anything from a rare first edition to the latest paperback is there for the customer. Browsing over the stock, inside or outside the premises, is a pleasantly rewarding way of spending a sunny morning. Nobody is ever pressed to buy, and it is possible to read an entire novel this way…
In April 2009 I spent two days wandering the neighbourhood, like John Mendes, whose tour guide doubles as a pub crawl of Finch pubs, I enjoyed a beer in-between book browsing, it was Spring and sunny.
A Literary Journey: Through Wartime Britain by A. C. Ward
New York, Oxford University Press 1943
The Truth About a Publisher by Sir Stanley Unwin
London, George Allen & Unwin 1960
Finch’s London by John Mendes
London, Elm Tree Books [Hamish Hamilton] 1972
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
London, Andre Deutsch 1971