She wrote a memoir in called Underfoot in Show Business  that chronicled her struggles as an ambitious young playwright trying to make it in the world of New York theatre in the s and s. The bulk of television production eventually moved to California, but Hanff chose to remain in New York. As her TV work dried up, she turned to writing for magazines and, eventually, to the books that made her reputation. She depended on the bookshop—and on Doel—for the obscure classics and British literature titles that fueled her passion for self-education.
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Anywhere I went that offered a chance to sign up to be a pen pal, I did with earnest. None of the pen pals ended up amounting to much, but it was thrilling to receive letters from them in the mail.
I come from a line of pen pal writers as my mother wrote to an English girl her age for her entire childhood and teenaged years. It comes of less of a surprise that I would be lead to 84, Charing Cross Road , a short book of correspondence by former television writer Helene Hanff. A proclaimed Anglophile who wrote to employees of the Marks and Company Book Shop in London over a twenty year period, Hanff published her letters in book form as a gift to future readers and letter writers.
Helene Hanff is enamored by out of print, hard to find British literature. The only location close to her where she is able to obtain any just to look at is at the main branch of the New York City Public Library.
Yet, that library is 50 blocks from her home and most of the time she is unable to bring the books she finds back to her apartment. The books she can read are new and do not have a history behind them.
While Hanff has got to pay for the air mail and shipping fees, she is happy to do so as it opens a new world of books to her. What started as an enquiry becomes a twenty year correspondence with employees at the shop.
The main pen pal Hanff wrote to was an employee named Frank Doel. In time, she also wrote to his wife and neighbor as well as other employees at Marks and Company. Engaging in intelligent conversations about books and about their lives, Hanff became emotionally invested in the lives of the Marks and Company family. Each year she would send the staff gifts of hard to find rationed items as meats, eggs, sugar, and nylon stockings. For this, they were forever grateful, going out of their way to send Hanff any book she requested, even an extremely rare copy of the Complete Works of John Donne.
While money did not allow her to travel, Hanff had an open invitation to visit London and stay as a guest of any of the shop employees. What had started as a simple letter morphed into a lifelong friendship.
The correspondence that Helene Hanff engaged in seemed as a precursor to goodreads as she discussed books with otherwise strangers on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Finding like minded readers from all over the world is one of the things I enjoy the most about goodreads, so I was drawn to Hanff and her quest to obtain British literature. With the majority of correspondence now done electronically, letter writing has become a lost art.
84, Charing Cross Road