Philobiblon: A golden age of bookshops?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A golden age of bookshops?

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. READ MORE


Blogger MaryB said...

84 Charing Cross Road is one of those books that you come upon, lose yourself in, and long to have been a part of. Still have my battered, brightly colored paperback from the 1970s.

12/21/2005 08:15:00 pm  
Blogger Blue Earth Notes said...

I loved 84 CHARING CROSS. I have a weakness for books about bookshops anyway. I just read Suzanne Strempek Shea's SHELF LIFE, about an American novelist's part-time job in an independent bookstore. After a bout of breast cancer, she couldn't seem to get out of her pajamas or write, and the bookstore culture was what she needed. This book is very fluffy, not in the same class as 84 CHARING CROSS, but I'll read anything about books.

In the U.S. a chain called Half Price Books has wiped out some used bookstores, but they still thrive in university towns, thank God. Half Price Books is good in its way, but I prefer the often musty atmosphere of the independent stores run by misanthropes.

12/22/2005 09:07:00 pm  

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