I read an edition of this that only included 84, Charing Cross Road, and not The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. This book is a memoir of sorts, consisting of letters between the author, Helene Hanff, and an employee, Frank Doel, of a second-hand bookstore in London at 84, Charing Cross Road. Over a 20-year period starting in 1949, Helene corresponds with Frank, Frank’s wife, and other employees of the bookstore, purchasing books from them and exchanging gifts.
I love used bookstores and used books and so was delighted by that aspect of the book. I also love letters and the way in which correspondence by mail used to take place. In our busy instant response time of internet and email, it is difficult to imagine the weeks that could pass between letters and the years that could pass between Helene requesting a title and the bookstore finally acquiring a copy for her. I sometimes wonder if we have lost the patience that was necessary in that era?
However, I didn’t enjoy the book quite as much as I expected. I think one thing that frustrated me was that I am not familiar with most of the books that Helene read (older things, classic, such as poetry by John Donne), so it was difficult for me to relate to what she was experiencing. The other thing I found frustrating was the sparsity of the letters, especially in the later years. There were clearly more letters exchanged than are present in the book, because sometimes a letter included referred to one that wasn’t present. This was a little annoying, as I felt like we were only getting snippets rather than the whole story in depth. Perhaps they felt that more letters would start to get boring or repetitive, but I think they could have included at least a little bit more than one or fewer per year.
So overall, while I enjoyed it, I didn’t love it.