Elation and bitter disappointment

Months ago, I regaled you (twice) with my love of a book that is now firmly lodged in my top 3 books of all time – 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. I loved it within the first 30 pages and then raved about the fact that its too short-ness was made up for by the inclusion in the same volume of its successor, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

Despite having heard about it aeons ago, I’d somehow not realised until I read it that it was non-fiction – everything in the book(s) actually happened. I think this is what’s made me fall in love with it all the more. Helene’s style of writing and enthusiasm captured me because she thought of books the way I do; plus she loved New York and London – and all the right bits of London. Therefore, it was all I could do to control a shriek of joy when I discovered another book by her in the trusty and fabulous Oxfam bookshop near work.

Q’s Legacy is effectively an autobiography, telling the story of how 84, Charing Cross Road & The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street came about and the impact their publication had on Helene’s life. The Q of the title was a distinguished Cambridge English Professor, whose volumes on English Literature became Hanff’s guide to what to read and how to write – it was his recommendations that led her in search of the classics that led her into the relationship with Marks &Co booksellers of the Charing Cross Road.

Reading Helene’s adventures in London – particularly the success of the stage adaptation – I discovered the fate of the bookshop. Duchess had revealed its closure, but in the 1980’s fans of the book ensured that its memory was kept alive thanks to a plaque on the bookshop’s original site. Finishing this volume last week, I realised that I’d never even thought to go looking for it.

I’m often on Charing Cross Road, after all, it’s the location of my second favourite bookstore (and most excellent bookstore cafe) – the still eccentric Foyles. Last night, following a convivial coffee at the aforementioned cafe, I made it a mini mission to find number 84 and hopefully take a photo of the plaque.

I was bitterly disappointed.
I knew that the original shop had gone and that it had probably been replaced with something terribly naff, but I really wasn’t prepared for what confronted me as I counted down from 90 (on one side of Cambridge Circus) to 82. I had to go back and check that I wasn’t mistaken, but there was no escaping it. Next door to number 82, in the place where Frank Doel had written his many missives to Helene, was…

…a Pizza Hut.

Earlier that afternoon, while on the bus en route to Charing Cross Road, I done a bit of a Google image search to see what it had looked like and what I might be looking out for. It paints a sad tale in the light of the later discovery.

Marks & Co in the 1960s

Nos. 88, 86 & 84 Charing Cross Road in 2004.
See the Costa? (Now part of Pizza Hut.) The second section is number 84. Gutted.

Sometimes I wonder why I write this blog (well, apart from the fact that I enjoy it & find it immensely cathartic), but the fact that since I raved about it, at least four readers have read 84, Charing Cross Road (and loved it themselves) makes me very happy. If you can get hold of a copy of Q’s Legacy, do, in the mean time, I’ll be seeking out anything else Hanff wrote. 

Comments

  1. Colleen E. Dawson says:

    Hi! I discovered “84” in a Reader’s Digest condensed format in the mid-1970s. I had decided that I was going to go to England at age 4, in 1963, and so the book had a tremendous impact on me. I did go to England for 6 weeks after I graduated from high school that was in lieu of going to college!) and have been back 6 times since. I do know of one other book by Helene Hanff; the title is “Apple of my Eye” and it’s about her life in New York. I haven’t read it, but hope it will be published for my Kindle someday!

    Regards,

    Colleen Dawson
    Milwaukee, WI

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