In 1949, as she searched for obscure books to feed her reading habit, American author Helene Hanff struck up a correspondence with Frank Doel, chief buyer for Marks & Co., an antiquarian bookshop nestled at 84, Charing Cross Road in London. These letters, filled with Hanff’s charismatic wit and Doel’s classic English reserve, ultimately spanned two decades, and in 1970 they became a now-classic book, 84 Charing Cross Road. A year later, Hanff’s British publisher invited her over to help publicise the book, and so, in June of 1971, she travelled to London for the first time and for five weeks immersed herself in the city she had read so much about, visited 84 Charing Cross Road—though the shop was now closed—and met the staff she now considered family—all except Frank Doel, who had sadly died in 1968. During her trip, Hanff kept a diary, and in 1973 those entries became another charming book, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. This is just one.
The Diary Entry
Tuesday, July 6
Had my hair done at a little shop out Regent’s Park way on Paddington Street, and the pretty hairdresser asked Was I from the States, and I said Yes.
“How do you find London?” she asked. “Do the noise and the crowds bother you?”
For a big city, London is incredibly quiet. The traffic is worse than at home because the streets here are so narrow; but the cars are very quiet going by in the street and there are no trucks at all, a city ordinance bans them. Even the sirens are quiet. The ambulance sirens go BlooOOP, blooOOP, like a walrus weeping under water.
And I haven’t seen anything here, not even on a bus, that a New Yorker would describe as a crowd.
If you haven’t read 84 Charing Cross Road, do so immediately. I can think of no other book quite so charming. Your next task is to find a copy of The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, which is similarly entertaining and, as mentioned above, consists almost entirely of Hanff’s diary entries.
“Tuesday, July 6” from The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff. Copyright (c) 1973 by Helene Hanff. Used by permission.