Wednesday, 20 July 2005

84 Charing Cross Road

84 Charing Cross Road was on TV a couple of nights ago. I've seen a bit of it before but this time saw it nearly from the beginning. It is a film about a book shop. That's all it is for heaven's sake, and yet it so compelling and wonderful. It is a film that hugs and left me with tears rolling down my face!

London is portrayed as this enigmatic place with its refined style and genteelness. The filming, done in 1987, captures post war English fashion, and the decor in the homes of the various staff of the bookstore. Dark wood heirloom furniture, not a veneer or chipboard in sight, with old faded, once sumptuous fabrics. Not a pin out of place. Everything is in shades of brown or sepia and looks like a studied picture.

Despite appreciating the London being portrayed, I would not for one moment want to live then. The soot laden foggy air; scratchy woollen clothing; the musty houses with dark corners; the lack of central heating and most of all the rationing. The rationing figures in the film with the food parcels sent to the book shop by Helene Hanff who corresponded with the shop for over forty years from New York. She started off ordering books and it was all predictably formal until she became friends, via letter, with all the staff. I can imagine the wonderment and delight she had purchasing and receiving books that were over a hundred years old. There is one poignant point in the film where Helene shows an old book to one of her girlfriends and laments that the book should be in some stately English house with a library but her friend replies that she reckons that the book would prefer to be here in New York with Helene.

The bookstore itself is a treasure trove of ceiling high book cases, with knowledgeable staff, brown paper wrappings and string. A few of these book stores still exist in the UK but they are rapidly dwindling. There are a few in London, near the British Library and the university areas, and also I remember one particular bookstore in Richmond (south-west London) in the 1980's. That was an amazing place, with ladders to climb, aisles of high bookcases, nooks and crannies and piles of second-hand books. There was a light musty smell, nothing too heavy. It was heavenly. I don't know if it is still there or been bought out by one of the chain store book shops. Actually, I take my hat off to the Waterstones chain of bookstores as they try to create a magic in their stores full of new books, have some good staff, but it is not the same as the second hand places.

We went to Brighton once for a day out to see friends. Having espied a small second-hand bookstore tucked away I thought we could spend a few of our spare minutes in there. I unexpectedly ended up leaving with a package of my 6 volume Old & New London from Cassell & Company dated 1897 with its yellowed but otherwise perfect pages for the small sum of £36. It is a history of London including particular streets complete with engravings of where some of my ancestors happened to live for nearly a hundred years. Suffice to say they were heavy to carry on our day out but worth it.

Life has come an interesting full-circle. There was Helene Hanff buying books from England and here we are in the internet age of online second-hand book search facilities, and we buy particular old books from the US and other places round the world. Often these are books which began their lives in the UK and if they hadn't been bought and treasured by people overseas then maybe they might be lost and unavailable now!

Thinking of how we view life in England, I notice that Madonna tells of her love for England in this BBC news item about her photo shoot for Vogue.

This is a great website with photos about 84 Charing Cross Road: the real shop and its staff.

This is a selection of Helen Hanff Obituaries which say a bit about her life.

Original Comments:

Karen said...
I love old books, If I had the money I would build a massive library, ceiling high with funny running ladders and fill it with all our hundreds of books.
Wednesday, July 20, 2005 2:45:00 PM
Red Mum said...
Funny you posting that, as I was thinking the same thing about the demise of those kind of book shops recently when our local one closed.

There was a mad place when I was growing up in Belfast called Harry Hall's.

It was the clutterers equivalent of a book shop, not neat, tidy and chaotically organised.

An absolute magical place, really magical.
Wednesday, July 20, 2005 2:50:00 PM
John said...
Yes, Doris, I too fell under the spell of the book by Helene Hanff. It was great because it combined two close, yet separate, cultures: New York and London. She also wrote a sequel which lacked the poignancy of the first. I can't even remember the title now. The film made a very good attempt at capturing the slightly dotty enthusiasm of the book. But films are never quite as good as the books they come from, are they?
Wednesday, July 20, 2005 4:09:00 PM
doris said...
Karen - that'd be wonderful :-)

Red Mum - magical sums up wonderful bookstores.

John - I will readily confess I have never read the book, but I do agree that on the whole books are better than the films it does help if one sees the film without having first read the book. Then you have a chance to appreciate the film without judging it and a wonderful experience all over again to read the book.

One exception comes to mind. I read The Colour Purple first, which was truly wonderful in content and approach and was equalled, in my mind, by the movie.
Wednesday, July 20, 2005 4:48:00 PM
Le laquet said...
Grand post! I haven't seen 84 Charing Cross Road, but I read the book and it was wonderful; just realised I've repeated John's comment but just not as well!! Oh dear *mumble*
Wednesday, July 20, 2005 5:06:00 PM
guest said...
I’m afraid I can’t make much of comment contribution on this one. If a book does not fit in my back pocket or inside my jacket pocket I simply don’t read it. I’m always on the go so I need the portability (but at least I do like to read, unlike so many people out there).
Wednesday, July 20, 2005 10:03:00 PM
/T/ said...
Thanks for your comment on /T/BLOG/ It was something I had not seen before other than in my home. I like your blog, I will definitely come back to read some more.
Thursday, July 21, 2005 12:08:00 AM
Bernadette said...
Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft were just perfect, too! That is one of my favorite romantic movies and I thank you for putting me in mind of it and for the extra information!
Thursday, July 21, 2005 1:23:00 AM
Mama Mouse said...
There was a time when I would have loved to come across a bookstore like that. To sit and look at olden volumes of mystery, charm and wit. I used to love to read ... but my eyesight is strange these days, and while I can read the text on my monitor, it is diffictult to read that in a book.

Thank you for taking me there. It made me feel as if I could reach out and touch the magic stacks of books and smell that musty but lovely aroma of well loved and used books.
Thursday, July 21, 2005 2:17:00 AM
Milt said...
The only place to go for books is Hay On Wye. Unless, by chance, you have a cousin who works in the Bodleian in Oxford.
Friday, July 22, 2005 1:16:00 AM
Max said...
Funnily enough I was channel hopping that day and when I landed on 84 Charing Cross Road I could not tear myself away. Anna Bancroft, who died recently, was brilliant and so was Anthony Hopkins. No wonder he was voted Britain's top actor in a recent poll. The cinematography was seamless, both in NYC and London. Robert De Niro was so impressed with Hopkins's performance that he found a project for himself and David Jones, the director, to work on. It was called Jacknife and for some it was Ed Harris's break-through movie.
Saturday, July 23, 2005 9:42:00 AM
Cheryl said...
I never saw it before, but did this time - magical.

Next time you hit Brighton, stop off at Lewes, there are at least three good antiquarian bookshops there, packed to the hilt. I'll give you the guided tour!
Sunday, July 24, 2005 8:57:00 AM
arrazello said...
Ah - books. How I love books. Ever noticed how the laws of time cease to apply once you enter a bookshop?
Monday, July 25, 2005 2:33:00 PM

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