Sunday, March 05, 2006


Why do we sell books? With four daughters, and too many graduate degrees, we need all the streams of income we can get. When he was a boy Brian used to take the money that his parents gave him to spend for rides and cotton candy at the local fairground and come home with bags of books instead. Now he gets to come home with bags of books several times per week. Our idea of a fun "date" has always meant going to used bookstores. We would be remiss, however, if we did not mention the influence of the book 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. (It was also made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins.)

If you are a bookseller and have not read this book you need to correct that glaring oversight immediately. Or at least watch the movie. If you like to read books you, too, will be charmed by this book as she wanders her way through some of the great works of English literature. The book is 94 pages long and contains the letters that Hanff wrote to a bookseller in London from 1949-1969. Hanff lived in New York City and was unable to find affordable copies of the antiquarian books she wanted so she responded to an ad in a local newspaper by Marks & Co in London and thus began her 20-year relationship with Frank.

Helene sends letters requesting that Frank send certain books. The letters at the beginning are formal but Hanff loosens things up by saying, "I hope 'madam' doesn't mean over there what it does here." Her wit is so delightful that you will sit there and read the book in one sitting. When Frank sends a Bible that doesn't meet Helene's expectations she writes back, "Kindly inform the Church of England they have loused up the most beautiful prose ever written, whoever told them to tinker with the Vulgate Latin? They'll burn for it, you mark my words."

When Frank mistakenly sends an edited version of a book she lets him have it: "WHAT KIND OF PEPYS' DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS? This is not pepys' diary, this is some busybody editor's miserable collection of EXCERPTS from pepys' diary may he rot. i could just spit. where is Jan. 12, 1668, where his wife chased him out of bed and round the bedroom with a red-hot poker...i will make do with this thing till you find me a real Pepys. THEN i will rip up this ersatz book, page by page, AND WRAP THINGS IN IT."

Helene also scolds Frank for sending her a book and writing a personal inscription on a card rather than in the book. After Brian and I read her view on inscriptions we agreed with her and are now charmed by such books:

"I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else has turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to."

When Frank sent Helene a book he often described it as a "good clean copy." It made me smile every time I saw that phrase in his letter and I now often include that phrase in our online book descriptions.

Our home and storage areas are now full of several thousand books, all of them used, all of them with pages someone else has turned. Thanks to the internet and the minimal overhead we can do what seemed impossible 15 years ago when we would frequent Much Ado Books in Marblehead, Massachusetts and fantasize about owning a bookstore: sell good clean copies to people all over the world.
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Blogger Mimi said...

I LOVE that book, I've not seen the movie.

10:16 AM  
Blogger GuusjeM said...

I adore this book too, and the movie is equally wonderful. The sequel is'nt nearly as good. Thanks for stopping by my blog - I like yours too!

2:27 PM  

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