Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mere Words -- Lori Ann Bloomfield

_84 Charing Cross Road_; Hanff, Helene

I don’t browse in bookshops as much as I used to. These days, I often have an author or title in mind when I step into a bookstore. But back then – then being twenty years ago, when I was in my late teens – browsing was pretty much all I did. It was while browsing one afternoon that I found 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff.

The book began with no preface, no explanation. Page one was simply a letter from Hanff to the owner of the antiquarian bookshop called Marks and Co., at 84 Charing Cross Road, London, W.C. 2, England. She had seen an advertisement placed by someone employed at Marks and Co. in "The Saturday Review of Literature", she wrote, and after admitting the word “antiquarian” intimidated her (equating it with expensive, as I did myself), inquired about a few books she was interested in. It was a warm and funny letter.

The response came on page two from Frank Doel, one of the booksellers at Marks and Co. He stated they had the Hazlitt essays she wanted, but not the Leigh Hunt. While not exactly stuffy, his letter was certainly proper. Certainly English.

I read a few more pages before deciding to buy the book, and took it home with me. At that time, I was living in a Toronto apartment so small I owned only two pieces of furniture: a sofa that converted to a bed and a table with folding legs. In the mornings, I would fold up the bed and unfold the table; in the evenings, I folded up the table and unfolded the bed. It was my own domestic sunrise, sunset.

I read the book in one sitting, which was not that impressive considering it is a scant one hundred pages. What began as a simple inquiry from a poor New York writer with a fondness for old books grew into twenty years' correspondence. Over those years, Helene and Frank’s letters came to include shop gossip, family news and even a pact to cheer on each other’s favourite sports teams, though their book talk was what I enjoyed eavesdropping on the best.

In the homes I visited most often as a child -- those of relatives, neighbours and family friends -- none had a bookshelf and rarely was there any evidence anyone read books. My mother was the only adult I regularly saw reading: she enjoyed paperback romances. In the basement of our house, was a three-shelf bookcase, neglected by everyone but me, holding her old high school textbooks and a few dozen book-of-the-month club selections she’d acquired before I was born.

I read voraciously and indiscriminately, though I longed to read “serious” books, even before I knew what was meant by that secret desire. It was obvious to me Helene Hanff read “serious” books. Everything she ordered from Marks and Co. was by some long-dead author I had never heard of. So I began to read the books Helene read.

Some I found in libraries, others in dusty second-hand bookshops. Fairly quickly, I realized my own tastes ran to fiction, while Helene’s to non-fiction, but without her, I may never have discovered Pepys’ diary, or the Cambridge lectures of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. It is almost certain that without Helene, John Donne would have remained nothing more than the author of a poem about a flea, clumsily explained to me in high school, instead of the man imprisoned in the Tower of London (for love), and later, the man who became Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, who I now know him to have been. I owe Helene much.

Over the years, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve reread 84 Charing Cross Road. It remains one of my favourite books and the one most likely to be reached for when I am in need of the calming balm only a favourite book can impart. I remember once being so distressed, I crawled into bed in the middle of the day, and took 84 with me. Oddly, I can no longer recall why I was so upset, only the delicious feeling of lying back against the pillows and falling into those letters again. Eventually, I sought out and read most of Helene Hanff’s other books, though 84 remains my favourite.

It turned out Helene and I shared more than a love of books and a peculiar sense of humour: the place we both most yearned to visit was London, England. Not long after Helene’s death in the spring of 1997, I took my first trip there.

After checking into a slightly shabby Bloomsbury hotel, I walked to Charing Cross Road. I knew that Marks and Co. had long since closed, but also knew a plaque mentioning Helene Hanff had been erected where it once stood. When I finally found number 84, it was under construction, being readied for a new tenant. A tarp covered its window while workmen banged away inside. Slightly off to one side, on a stone pillar, was the plaque I had been searching for. It read: "84 Charing Cross Road. The booksellers Marks and Co. were on this site, which became world-renowned through the book by Helene Hanff."

With the unfamiliar noise of London traffic at my back, I read and reread the plaque, reluctant to leave. Frank must have walked by the place I stood countless times, and I knew Helene had eventually made it to this spot, too. It seemed so much more than mere words had brought me to this place, so much more than mere words made me well up with emotion. Yet that’s all they were: words. It is all books are made of. Mere words are set down carefully by writers and received by readers. Mere words can close the gap between centuries, countries, races, sexes, even you and I. Mere words can teach, entertain, or even, for a brief span of time, make us feel less alone.

Mere words, indeed.

84 Charing Cross Road
By Helene Hanff
Avon Books
First Avon Printing, September, 1974

Lori Ann Bloomfield has published several stories in literary magazines in Canada and the US. She is currently working on her first novel.