A version of this article was originally published in the Isle of Man Examiner.
A favourite bit of comfort reading for me is 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. If you don’t know it, then I urge you to seek out a copy as soon as you can. It’s an absolutely charming true life story about the long pen-pal friendship between Hanff, a struggling writer in New York and the staff of one of the many antiquarian bookshops on Charing Cross Road in London. Snapshots of life in the mid 20th century emerge, as the protagonists search for rare and out of print titles that can’t be found in the Big Apple.
These days of course, Amazon and eBay would rob the book hunt of some of its thrill, but the appeal of second-hand books is still strong. I was reminded of something Helene Hanff says in 84CCR (as the cool kids undoubtedly call it) recently, while in the Manx equivalent of Charing Cross Road – Peel.
Different cities are home to different cultural icons. Rio de Janeiro has the carnival. Sydney has the opera house. Peel has a fairly large number of second-hand bookshops for a place its size, which is something to celebrate in my…er….book. They could de-silt the Marina by using unwanted copies of The Da Vinci Code to soak up the gunge.
For Hanff, one of the pleasures of a volume previously owned by others was the notes and inscriptions left on the pages. It makes the current reader think of all the previous readers of the book, and gives an insight into how they responded to it.
One of the books that I bought in Peel the other day had such a note on the first page. To avoid embarrassing anybody, I won’t name the book or quote directly, but the inscription in it wished somebody a happy birthday and hoped that the recipient would like it. Well, given that it had ended up in a second-hand bookshop, I’m guessing that hope was dashed.
But that’s OK. Trying to guess whether a book will be a hit with somebody else, even someone you know well, is tricky. There’s no point in hanging on to a book that isn’t going to give you pleasure or practical help. The book in question now belongs to me, and if I don’t think it’s a keeper, it will re-enter the life cycle of the vintage bookshop. That’s a much better existence for a book to have than forlornly gathering dust, unread and unregarded.
So, if I’ve persuaded you to give 84 Charing Cross Road a try, you could look for it among the pre-loved paperbacks of Peel. However, that particular work is so well-liked, owners tend to hang on to copies and it is rarely seen in second-hand form. Which is a rather lovely irony that I think the Helene Hanff would enjoy.