84, CHARING CROSS ROAD and Strangers

Penguin 1990

“I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book” (pg.54) 

I love books. So books on books are just like having hot fudge poured over chocolate ice cream. It is so satisfying. This is a short book – a mere 97 pages- so it takes just a few minutes to devour. But it will leave both bookseller as well as booklover satiated for days. I found myself daydreaming about having a relationship like this with some far off fellow book devotee while at the bookshop today. I imagined what it would be like to find the letters in the mail and begin searching for a book for many months, even years at one point. We do have a box of requests from people at the shop but it does not cultivate quite the relationship that Helene created with Mark’s and Co. Booksellers. Occasionally, I sift through the box and make a few phone calls. Those may yield a sale if I am lucky. Normally I just wind up returning the books to the shelf and ripping up the card. However, those rare occasions when I phone someone who has been looking for a book for a very long time and explain that I have located a copy are so much fun. We have a small connection for those brief moments when I am the bearer of wonderful news. There is usually disbelief followed by giddy laughter and a promise to stop by soon. Then, when I am lucky, I will see the person when they make it to the shop and we will be giddy again. I love it. It makes my job so enjoyable. I could relate to the staff as they wrote to Helene individually throughout the years. You love to get beautiful books into the hands of people that will treasure them. Certainly, Helene is one of those kind.

As a bookseller I am a bibliophile- obviously! You have to love books to do a proper job of selling books to people. It is just a requirement, end of story. So Helene’s constant search for books is so familiar. I sift through stacks of books every day at Bogart’s but there are still many holes in my collection. On many of my days off, I scour other used bookshops or consignment shops for the missing books from my shelves. I am now contemplating with which shop I will begin a long, romantic relationship sustained by intermittent letters requesting books. It seems like the dream situation for any serious reader. Also, I hereby encourage anyone to begin one with Bogart’s. Our address is 210 N. High St. Millville, NJ 08332. Seriously. Do it. We would all be so excited and honored to search out books for someone. 

In the end, I just really liked all the people as well. There are not many words exchanged but so much is revealed anyway. The fact that Helene sends gifts throughout is so sweet. She really helps these strangers though a tough time right after World War II because they were so kind to ship books to her. She felt a camaraderie from a shared love of books and they help each other for more than 2 decades. It did break my heart that they never met in person. But their connection was deeper than many people who see each other daily. Helene was just lovely. I felt I had so much in common with her. I quote a passage that I took great delight in writing “me too!” in the margins:

I wish you hadn’t been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf. It’s the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you’d decrease its value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly for the future owner. I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I love the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.) (pg.27)

Reading this post probably took about the same time as it does to read this tiny tome. Not really but sometimes hyperbole is necessary to make a point. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to go to your nearest (preferably independently owned) neighborhood bookshop and find this book. Then, share it with others. It reminds me why I like books in the first place. They remind us that strangers just need find common ground to become friends.

If you liked this, then you may like…

Alice Calaprice

If you enjoyed reading charming letters from charming people then you should pick up Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letter to and from ChildrenThis is the second post in a row that I mention Einstein so it should come as no surprise that in high school I was enamored by him. I still think he is the most enigmatic and complex celebrity of all time. And quite a celebrity he was. You might have thought only movie stars could command the amount of attention that Einstein received in the beginning of the 20th century. The people loved him, especially the children. This book collects the most memorable of his letters throughout the years. It is wonderful if you are already interested in Einstein but it reads just as entertaining if you know nothing of the man either. Einstein was a prolific letter writer so also search out any collection of his letters if you are interested in learning more about him.

John Dunning

I’ve gushed about John Dunning quite a few times (I swear this is the last time I’m going to recommend him so write his name down now. Go ahead. I’ll give you a minute… ok? Good.) You know that I love him. If you liked the discussion of rare or antique books then you will love the Cliff Janeway series of books that start with Booked to DieIt allows you to fantasize about being a bookseller with the extra enticement of danger. Everything is well researched so it educates you on the field as well as entertains you. Fantastic series.

See you later, see you soon.

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