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    Our first essay winner!

    84 Charing Cross Road

    Debra Hughes

    Postwar London. Rationing. Books. Blossoming friendships. All came to life in Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road, which reflects a 20-year correspondence between an American writer and the proprietor and staff of Marks & Co., antiquarian booksellers. Nearly 40 years later, I still recall the wonder and magic of the letter in conveying not only information but emotion—and kindness. Hanff sent them presents, including food that could not be obtained in London following World War II. Sadly, the proprietor died and the shop closed before Hanff could meet her friends.


    I wrote to Hanff, telling her how much I had enjoyed reading her book. She replied, thanking me for taking the time to write. Another wonder: a writer had written to me. She never knew how much her kindness meant to a 15-year old living in the middle of Germany on an oasis with other Americans referred to as “base housing.” Believing I would be bothering her (what did I have to share?), I did not reply.


    When I visited London for the first time in 1973, it was 84 Charing Cross Road I wanted to see, not Big Ben or Carnaby Street. I subsequently made many pilgrimages; however, all that now remains is a plaque commemorating the shop and book.


    At the time, I did not know such works were called “epistolary”; what I did know was this book captured a time and place that would never again exist. I’d like to think her book made me a better letter writer; more descriptive and chatty. However, as I write this on my computer, I wonder whether the art of forming letters of the alphabet will disappear, beginning with the letter “a,” a circle with a tail, with the promise that once mastered, script awaits? What will libraries and museums display of today’s so-called “writing,” the twitters and tweets? E-mails, complete with J and LOL? Will these one day be looked upon as ancient texts, their hieroglyphics to be unraveled to assess full meaning and context? What will be read between the letters of the abbreviated texts, the missing vowels?


    We live in the present; if not the minute, the second. What is worth capturing in writing? All of it—the banal, the commonplace. But, in full sentences, preferably written by hand or by pounding the keys of a manual typewriter with a carriage so worn each line dips slightly lower in the middle—anything showing a human effort. We have a responsibility to share ordinary life so others can learn, as I did, about postwar London, books, and how letters can change lives, even when the writers never have the chance to meet.


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    7 Responses to “Our first essay winner!”

    1. Peter Young says:

      What a joy to read. As a fan of “84 Charing Cross Road” and toom a visitor to the “spot” in London, I can almost feel the happiness that Debra Hughes felt. Bravo!

    2. Ann Hoover says:

      Debra -

      I, too, read 84 Charing Cross Road many, many years ago; and the book about Guernsey prompted me to reread 84 Charing Cross Road; I just finished finished it 2 weeks ago! Your essay was wonderful. Bravo for you.

    3. Lea says:

      I read 84 Charing Cross Road only after I’d seen the movie which was extremely heartwarming and full of goodness as was the book.
      When we went to London for the 1st time in 1990, 84 Charing Cross Road was among our 1st stops.
      Sadly it was some type of American pizza parlor not even an Italian one.
      I don’t remember there being any plaque but could have missed it.
      Also maybe it has been installed since 1990.
      I gave the book to a neighbor about three years ago. She passed it along to her sister. I hope it’s still moving.
      Every time I think of that book, I’m reminded how much the English gave for freedom. May we all remember what the war costs all of our relatives and friends.

    4. Ann Haugh says:

      A wonderful essay.

    5. Patricia Neumann says:

      I,too, am a long time fan of 84, Charing Cross Road. I just read “Guernsey…” this past week and was just delighted and will read “84″ again. Guernsey is a marvelous book and I am so sorry to see that the author has died. I intended to pursue everything else she had or would write. Her book will last forever.

    6. June Robinson says:

      I read 84, Charing Cross Rd a few years after I saw the film. Like you, I loved reading the letters from Helen to Frank at the bookshop. I couldn’t wait to read about her trip later to London her next book, The Duchess of Bloomsbury.
      Wonderful fireside reading !

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