Thursday, April 8, 2010

Reconstituted Hanff

When Helene Hanff sent off her first letter to Marks & Co., Booksellers, 84, Charing Cross Road, London, W. C. 2, she did so in response to an advertisement in The Saturday Review of Literature. She wrote from her apartment in New York asking for three books. The bookstore had two of these in stock and sent them off, the third, the book of essays by Leigh Hunt, took quite a bit longer, but eventually Helene got that one as well, from Marks & Co., as she did all her books thereafter, for more than two decades. Therein of course is the story of Helene Hanff's book, 84, Charing Cross Road, published in 1970.

(To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the book's publication, a couple of us at the bookstore will be reading an edited selection of the correspondence from that small classic, on Wednesday, April 28th, 7PM. Just a reminder, for any who might be thinking of coming to hear us -- everyone is welcome.)

In the response to Helene Hanff's first letter in the book, we learn that the bookstore managed to find "the three Hazlitt essays" she was looking for in "the Nonesuch Edition of his Selected Essays and the Stevenson is found in Virginibus Puerisque." These were the first books sent to her in New York, and that first order was representative of the dozens that followed. Helene usually wanted something she'd already read but wanted, something that could only be had then, at least in New York, in "expensive, out-of-print editions," and more often than not, something she'd first encountered in the published lectures of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, M. A., King Edward VII Professor of English Literature in the University of Cambridge. Hanff managed one year in college, on a scholarship, during the Great Depression, before she was forced to quit and find work to help support herself and her family. She'd gone to the public library, to look for textbooks, to continue her education on her own, when she found "Q," as the professor was nicknamed by his students, in a book of his lectures. "Q," in his books, including The Oxford Book of English Verse and The Oxford Book of English Prose, among other titles, became her teacher. Only a few years after she'd found him, she saw Quiller-Couch's obituary in the Times, but his books shaped her studies, her reading and her writing for life. As Helene said, "If Q liked it, I'll like it." (She would eventually acknowledge her debt to her teacher in another wonderful little book, Q's Legacy, published in 1985.)

"Q" liked, among others, Hazlitt, Stevenson and Leigh Hunt.

I can say, as a reader of Helene Hanff, and as a fellow college drop-out, for not entirely dissimilar reasons to hers, that if Helene liked it, I do too. Just as "Q" directed her to "the best" of English literature, so she directed me to "Q," and on to Hazlitt, Stevenson, Leigh Hunt, etc. I owe Helene Hanff, and 84, Charing Cross Road, and by extension, all the bookstores in my life, so much.

So the planned anniversary celebration is then in large part, and in a small way, an attempt to honor my debts. I am far from being alone in feeling a sense of obligation. Hanff has much to answer for when it comes to booksellers taking up the business of selling books. 84 Charing Cross Road was the destination to which her book directed many of us. That Marks & Co. had ceased to exist before Helene Hanff ever got to Charing Cross would seem to have been no kind of warning to any of us. I suspect many of us "in the books trade" still fancy we might some day get there yet.

One novel way in which the bookstore can mark this anniversary, is by making available again, at least in inexpensive reprints from the Expresso Book Machine, a number of the titles Helene Hanff had to request from across the ocean. If our copies are not the beautiful, leather-bound book she received from Marks & Co., we at least have the advantage of being able to reproduce these titles in minutes, right in the bookstore. Here then, a partial list, all taken from the record of Helen Hanff's library, of some of the books we will have on offer soon:

First, two elegant, slim volumes of essays by Hillaire Belloc: On Something and First and Last, both from The Echo Library.

Joseph Addison’s famous essays from “The Spectator,” offering a delightful, and gently satirical portrait, among the first in the literature, of a country gentleman, in a character that became much beloved, and justly famous thanks to The Sir Roger De Coverley Papers.

As Helene found all those years ago, much to her disappointment, there is still no inexpensive edition John Donne's Complete Sermons. So we’re reprinting his Devotions, with Two Sermons, so that the reader might at least get, as she did, a taste for more.

Our Latin New Testament, or Novum Testamentum Latine, was edited by Everhard Nestle, and at $20.00 is considerably more inexpensive than any currently available in print. We could find no current edition for less than fifty bucks. Like Helene's London booksellers, we are offering a Dictionary of The Vulgate New Testament, as a supplement, ours at only $10.00.

Our Selected Essays of William Hazlitt, is not the Nonesuch Press edition, but is still a good selection, edited by Frank Cass, for the Everyman's Library, and is not only inexpensive, but still a better and more complete selection than the in-print edition from Oxford, in which some modern editor/busybody has taken it upon himself to amend and alter a number of the most famous essays in English. A disgraceful performance. Avoid it. We've also reprinted, because we can! Hazlitt’s Table Talk.

The little edition of Leigh Hunt's Essays we're offering is a charming book, full of familiar things, and, as Helene might have said, it is just the right size to "slip into a slacks pocket" and take to the park on a lovely Spring day, should we here in Seattle ever have another.

Samuel Johnson On Shakespeare, from 1908, with an introduction by Walter Raleigh -- the Edwardian critic, not the Elizabethan pirate -- is exactly the edition Helene recieved from London.

Among the true curiosities she bought, is a book of prose, from poet and playwright, Ben Jonson, Timber: Or, Discoveries Made Upon Men and Matter. Ours is edited with an introduction and notes by one Felix E. Schelling. Don't know the man, but the book seems well organized and clearly printed. (I confess, this is one of the few titles Hanff read that I never have.)

For our reprint Lamb, Charles, we've selected a Selected Essays of Charles Lamb, as the only inexpensive edition available to date from Google books of The Essays of Elia is just too defaced by marginalia and xeroxed thumbs for me to sell the things without cringing.

Walter Savage Landor, we've decided, might best be approached by new readers in The Pentameron and Other Imaginary Conversations. Helene Hanff did not much approve of editors and "selections," always prefering complete collections when and where available of her favorites. I concur, but in this instance, it seems this single volume will have to suffice for now.

Hanff was much fonder of ol' John Henry, Cardinal Newman and his Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education. Addressed to the Catholics of Dublin, etc -- more popularly known, if that's the word, as "The Idea of a University" -- than I ever became. Here's the book for better men and women than me to read, none the less.

For a taste of "Q," we have reprinted Arthur Quiller-Couch's The Pilgrim's Way. Haven't found all his lectures yet, and can't reprint his Oxford Anthologies, presumably because both have been replaced by newer editions from the same Press. Pity, that.

Virginibus Puerisque, which I've recently found translated as "for boys and girls," by Stevenson, Robert Louis, isn't really, I think. But it is a wonderful book, and one I'm specially glad to have in a cheap copy to sell again. (The only new edition I can find available is a British import, and not only expensive, but ugly.)

The Poetical Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt with a Memoir and Critical Dissertation is the only other book of poetry on our list so far. Glad to have it for that reason, but also because, disgracefully, there is no in-print edition available at the moment! I find that shocking, but there we are.

Finally, we are printing up one of Helene's favorites, Walton's Lives, with old Izaak's brief biographies of John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker, George Herbert, and Robert Sanderson.

There are, of course, many other books mentioned in 84, Charing Cross Road that are stocked already, new and used, like the Austen for which Hanff, no great reader of fiction, went "mad." We stock all the Loeb Library, including the two or three we know the author to have ordered. Chaucer, in various editions, The Wind in the Willows, etc., etc., any good bookstore will have these books. We even have, just at the moment, a first duel edition, used, in a very good hardcover, with a fair wrapper of Woolf's The Common Reader & The 2nd Common Reader, in one fat old volume, though I'd be surprised if that will go unsold until the night of our reading. (We have it marked at a very reasonable price.)

My hope is, in reprinting some of these books ourselves on our new EBM, we can offer our customers some of the same pleasure I found all those years ago, much as Helene Hanff did, only hunted up over time in used books, but now all at a go. Imagine, in one arm-load, one might have much of what it took Helene Hanff decades to acquire!

Though she would disapprove of our rather homely little reprints, I'm sure Helene Hanff would have been made happy, the first time we put Hazlitt's essays into new hands.


  1. Oh Brad, your post makes me watery-eyed and wistful ... I love you, your writing, that you love 84 Charing Cross Road as I do, that you are co-hosting a celebratory night at UBS ... everything! This piece really belongs at the bookstore blog too! Can I champion that effort? Or would you rather that I keep my big nose out of your affairs ... do let me know.


  2. Hazlett's Table Talk? Don't tease an old man - there is such a book? And there is no edition of Wyatt in print right now? That's what you're saying? That's astonishing. If just half the people enrolled in "poetry workshops" read poetry (most don't or read one poet only, usually Eliot or Bukowski), no poet would be out of print.

  3. Thanks, Jan, as always, for your kind words. Best leave that other blog to them what runs it, though.

    Richard, I'll send you a copy of Table Talk, though it's essays, really. It's true, no Wyatt but in anthologies. Shameful.
    Do people writing poetry really never read it? How bizarre!