By Gerald Hausman
Santa Fe, NM, USA

There isn’t another book like this one, as far as I know.

It had classic written all over it the day it was published in 1970.
Gerald Hausman

I don’t remember how many times I’ve read it, maybe a dozen, but I do recall when it was first suggested I read it. The owner of the bookstore, Los Artesanos, was Diana Stein, a highly cultured, well-read woman who loved to recommend books to her patrons. She gave me Helene Hanff’s delectable masterpiece. She did not sell it to me or even advise me to buy; she just said, “Read!”

I quickly grasped that the slim little book was a bunch of understated, funny letters to a British bookseller beginning in 1949 and ending in 1969.

Diana stood beside me as I turned pages. She was smiling. I was laughing. The book was hilarious right from the start.

She said, “I knew you’d like it.”

Yes, that’s how books were shared back then – with unreserved passion for the printed word.

As for those avatars who somehow always knew who liked what and why, Diana Stein was in good company, historically speaking. In fact, she was an American version of the luminous owner of Shakespeare and Company on 12 Rue de l’Odéon in Paris in the 1920s.  That book purveyor was Sylvia Beach who became famous for helping Hemingway get into print.   

Diana Stein was on South Pacific in Old Town, Las Vegas, New Mexico, helping me get into print.

Obviously there is a world of difference between the two locations and the two ladies. But they were also quite similar. Sylvia Beach in Paris in the lost generation 20s and Diana Stein in the hippie-love New Mexico 60s. They were the same. By that I mean, mentors of the word. We don’t have such any more. People who sell handmade candles that look like colored, upside down teardrops and books printed letterpress and offset with paper that make mice rustle in the walls on hearing the pages turn.

In short, both women were magical mavens of the bound book: welcome to the world of perfect, Le Mot Juste. Both women jittered, glittered and never frittered. They were geniuses of presentation. One put a spell on Hemingway. The other introduced the likes of me to Oliver La Farge, Winfield Townley Scott, S. Omar Barker and other writers of the so-called golden west. More than that, Diana got me published by the press of Ernest Thompson Seton. I never aspired to be like Hem, the great master, not that I could if I wanted to. But I did aspire to please the likes of Diana Stein who first introduced me to literature.

Helen Hanff, the author of 84, Charing Cross Road, was a bit of both women I have just described, but with an edge sharper than a straight razor. She could be funny, sentimental, foolish if she wanted to be, elegant in her prose, as imitative and beam-eyed as a crow searching for a bright object. She could be sudden and shocking, kicking her letters up a notch so that she was writing in the manner of e.e. cummings only in prose as facile as it comes.

You cannot read Hanff quickly or as if it were mere entertainment. She immerses you in literature, in fine and august books, in her own delight at being alive and making fun of herself and others. She rollicks with words but they are always so well-chosen you just make clicking noises while you’re reading. It would, indeed, make her laugh to know that she may be forgotten in some sense in today’s busy self-consciously insincere world where books don’t matter as much as they used to, but her words are like a delicious hot bath of friendliness – with a sudden bit of ice water thrown in every so often to shock you into the next sprinkle of fantastic words.

SO, as she says in caps quite often, what is this necromantic book all about?

It is about a woman named Helene in Manhattan buying books by mail from a bookseller in London. The book starts off right after the Second World War when England was trying desperately to recover. Helene, a copyeditor then a scriptwriter, is so deeply in love with old books by great authors, books that she reads and re-reads, that her letters read like love letters. But she does take herself seriously, only in her love of literature. Her correspondent at the London bookseller is a man named Frank Doer. You might call him dour Frank Doer because he treats everything that comes his way that way. But Helene tickles him into laughing at himself as well as herself. They are not destined in any way to be face-to-face friends or lovers; just lovers of lit, of letterpress words from long ago times.

This whole thing is too enchanting that there is no other word to describe it. I am totally with Helene when she says she would never buy a book she hadn’t read before. It’s like her own book – I have read it so many times I think sometimes I wrote it and am checking for errors. But there are none. It’s one of the only perfect books I have ever read. Helene would shrug that off and say, SO WHAT!

However, as this book of letters reveals, the entire bookseller company ends up loving Hanff’s letters and thoughtful gifts to all the employees, that they, too, begin to write their own “love letters” to Hanff. Never gushy, never sentimental, the fellow workers at the bookstore just prove themselves to be as polite as Frank Doer, and also as mannerly and well-wishing. In turn, Hanff sends sustaining meat and eggs (literally, though the eggs are powdered) the Brits are in such short supply of during the recovery.

Back and forth, book buyer and bookseller, return favors and graciousness, and we, the reader, are re-introduced to a world that may have passed but can be easily re-imagined.

It is a world we badly need today. In our own suggestible time of momentary pleasures burnished by advertising and glib slogans, we desperately want to believe that some things are classic and will not fade away. Hand-printed books and heartful, artful, well-meant kindnesses will never be out of style. Nor will 84, Charing Cross Road.

(Gerald Hausman photo credit: Mariah Fox)


Gerald Hausman is an award-winning, bestselling author and a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine. His latest book, Little Miracles – A Memoir, will be released in the Summer of 2019.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.