13 June 2022

In search of books and
the lost bookshops of
Charing Cross Road

No 84 Charing Cross Road is no longer a bookshop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

During a visit to London last week, two of us walked along Charing Cross Road in search of some of the best-known and some of the lost bookshops of London.

Charing Cross Road, north of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields and Trafalgar Square, is still known for specialist and second-hand bookshops. From Leicester Square station to Cambridge Circus, the street is home to antiquarian, specialist and second-hand bookshops. Between Cambridge Circus and Oxford Street, the street includes more generalist bookshops.

Foyles was once listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest bookshop in terms of shelf length, at 30 miles (48 km), and for number of titles on display. It was a tourist attraction in the past and was known for its literary lunches and for its eccentric business practices.

Foyles moved from 111-119 Charing Cross Road to 107 Charing Cross Road, once the premises of Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design. It was bought by Waterstones in 2018 and now has a chain of seven shops in England.

A plaque at 84 Charing Cross Road recalls Helene Hanff’s search for books and her correspondence (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The New York-based writer Helene Hanff had a 24-year correspondence from 1949 with Frank Doel, the chief buyer of Marks & Co, antiquarian booksellers on Charing Cross Road. She was in search of obscure classics and British literature titles that she could not find in New York.

The books she bought ranged from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and John Donne’s Sermons to the writings of Samuel Johnson and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.

Their exchange inspired her book 84 Charing Cross Road (1970). It has been made into a film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins (1987), and also into a play and a BBC radio drama.

Charing Cross Road still has a selection of second-hand bookshops (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Like so many other premises, 84 Charing Cross Road is no longer a bookshop; it eventually closed in December 1970. It is now part of a McDonald’s outlet, with its entrance around the corner in Cambridge Circus. A brass plaque on a stone pilaster facing Charing Cross Road commemorates the former bookshop and Hanff’s book.

Helen Hanff was searching for obscure books she could not find in New York. She and Doel developed a long-distance friendship and their letters discussed diverse topics, from the Brooklyn Dodgers and the coronation of Elizabeth II, to how to make Yorkshire Pudding,

I first came across her book many years ago, and so appropriately, on a table in Zozimus Bookshop in Gorey, founded in 2011 by the late John Wyse Jackson. It was one of the most unusual second-hand and antiquarian bookshops I have visited in many years, and ranked alongside David’s in Cambridge and the lost and much-lamented Staffs Bookshop in Lichfield.

Every town and city deserves a good second-hand bookshop.

‘84 Charing Cross Road’ … an appropriate find in a second-hand bookshop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

No comments: