On a recent trip to the library, I spoke to the reference librarian, who gave me a few key words that were helpful in the research I was doing. When I had thanked her and started away, something in my peripheral vision made me turn to look toward the stacks. There in an open space was a free-standing shelf unit with rectangular objects wrapped in construction paper.
Intrigued, I walked closer. On the top shelf was a sign that asked a question: “Is your literary relationship getting a little stale?” There was a suggestion to add a bit of mystery to “spice it up” and an invitation to choose one of the wrapped books for a “special surprise.” And “…If it doesn’t work out, that’s okay. No need to give it the ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ speech. Bring it back to us, no questions asked.” It was signed: ” — xoxo, CBCPL Reference Librarians”
I found myself unable to resist the invitation. I scanned the books, but it wasn’t hard to choose. This irresistible reading adventure was a detour from my research project, so the adventure had to be a short one. I chose the smallest, slimmest volume. Glued to the dusky-pink wrapping, on a slip of white paper, was a description of my blind date: “Profile: An ode to books and reading can be found in my pages of correspondence that also chronicle the development of an intriguing relationship.” I took my blind date to the check-out counter and handed it over to the librarian. She smiled and said, “Oh good. You’re taking one of these home.” She was so pleased.
I drove home and, once inside the house, I set my mystery book on the kitchen table. I was practicing restraint. I didn’t want to know who or what I had brought home until there was sufficient time to get acquainted.
Hours later, having made some progress with the work at hand, I went back to the kitchen and put the kettle on. While my tea was steeping, I unwrapped my book. Do you believe in love at first sight? Whether you do or not, that was my experience when I removed the construction paper and found I had made a date with 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff.
If you’re a bibliophile—and an Anglophile—how could you not be instantly in love? I had never read Helene Hanff, so this was going to be a brand-new author experience—not only because I had never read anything by this writer, but also because I had never read any book that consisted entirely of letters (better known as an epistolary work, but I added that word to my vocabulary after this venture).
I settled with my tea in the living room armchair, turned on the lamp, and opened my library book to the first page. And the next, and the next. I stayed there until I had read the whole book, loving every minute of my time with Helene Hanff, laughing at her wry wit and her bossy, New York way with the very reserved—and very British—Frank Doel in London. I marveled at Helene’s intelligence, her humor and her tender, gruff manner. I felt my heart go out to the small staff at the bookstore Marks and Co. I became fond of them, came to care about their families and their neighbors. I spent twenty years with these people, all of it experienced through their letters back and forth across the Atlantic. All the while that I was reading, I felt connected to Helene Hanff and to the staff at the London bookstore by the same thing that had brought them together—a love of books and literature.
There’s no plot in 84, none of the formulaic elements that supposedly compel you to keep turning the page, and yet I couldn’t stop reading. It’s life. It’s people. It’s wonderful people. I wanted it to go on and on. But all things come to an end, and so did my beautiful blind date.
I could barely bring myself to take Helene back to the library. I waited until I could make time to go to the Book Bin, one of four—I cite that number with pride—independent bookstores in Corvallis, and there I found a used copy of 84, Charing Cross Road with the same wonderful cover. Now I can read it again whenever I like. I can tell as many people as possible about it, including those of you who read Zen Crunch. If you already know Helene Hanff and the people at Marks and Co., you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t read it, give yourself a present: Read 84, Charing Cross Road.
In case you’re wondering: The affair with Helene isn’t over. At the Book Bin, next to the copy of 84, I found another book by her, Q’s Legacy. It’s all about how the correspondence with the bookstore Marks and Co. came to be, and the ways in which Helene Hanff’s life changed after 84 was published. Q’s Legacy is longer than 84; I’ve had to stretch out and savor my time with it. I’m almost done. And I wish I weren’t. That’s what happens when you fall in love with a blind date you met at the library.