Let’s talk about pen pals

A year ago or maybe a bit longer I picked up a book in a second-hand store. According to the pencil marks inside, I paid $10 for it. I had never heard of the book, and the only reason it caught my eye was because the cover was remarkably similar to that of my own book Airmail, which had just been published.

The book was called 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff. I thought at the time it was fiction, but it turned out to be so much more.

It was a book of letters, spanning 20 years, between Helene Hanff, a kind-hearted, sharp-witted, book-loving writer living in New York, and various members of staff (and in time their families) of Marks & Co Booksellers, a London dealer in rare out-of-print and antiquarian books.

“Dear Madam,” the Marks & Co manager wrote to Helene on 25 October, 1949, “The three Hazlitt essays you want are contained in the Nonesuch Press edition of his Selected Essays and the Stevenson is found in Virginibus Puerisque. We are sending nice copies of both these by Book Post and we trust they will arrive safely in due course…” All very formal and proper.

Then on November 3, Helene replied:

“The books arrived safely, the Stevenson is so fine it embarrasses my orange-crate bookshelves, I’m almost afraid to handle such soft vellum and heavy cream-colored pages… I never knew a book could be such a joy to the touch… A Britisher whose girl lives upstairs translated the £1/17/6 for me and says I owe you $5.30 for the two books. I hope he got it right… Will you please translate your prices hereafter? I don’t add too well in plain American, I haven’t a prayer of ever mastering bilingual arithmetic.”

In a postscript she added, “I hope ‘madam’ doesn’t mean over there what it does here.”

And so a friendship was born.

A month later on 8 December 1949, still not even knowing the name of the person to whom she wrote, Helene sent a letter enclosing payment for another order, and added:

“Now then. Brian [British boy friend of Kay upstairs] told me you are all rationed to 2 ounces of meat per family per week and one egg per person per month and I am simply appalled. He has a catalogue from a British firm here which flies food from Denmark to his mother, so I am sending a small Christmas present to Marks & Co. I hope there will be enough to go round, he says the Charing Cross Road bookshops are ‘all quite small.'”

What a thoughtful woman Helene must have been. Can you imagine? But wait, there’s more. Turn the page: 9 December, 1949.

“CRISIS! I sent that package off. The chief item in it was a 6-pound ham, I figured you could take it to a butcher and get it sliced up so everybody would have some to take home. But I just noticed on your last invoice it says. ‘B. Marks. M. Cohen.’ Props. ARE THEY KOSHER? I could rush a tongue over. ADVISE PLEASE!”

Anyway, the book is adorable. Inspiring. Heartwarming. When it ended, somewhat abruptly and sadly, I discovered there was a second story in my little paperback. Called The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, this is Helene’s diary from when, in 1971, she finally made it to London to set foot on the old streets she had longed walk all her life, and meet some of the friends she had made after 20 years of being pen pals.

If you love books, love snail mail, love friendship, try to find yourself a copy. You’ll thank me.

Meanwhile, these photographs are from a package I received in the mail yesterday from my own pen pal, Astrid (of Etsy shop Flora Likes Soap), who lives in Germany. She writes to me about her life, her studies, her travels in Italy and Switzerland and Sweden, the books she loves, and how her family celebrates at various times of year. I love receiving these letters, and slowly getting to know Astrid as a person through her words and thoughtful gifts.

Do you have any pen pals? Tell me your snail mail stories!

14 comments

  • Hila

    Oh gosh, this makes me want to be your pen pal! Thank you so much for the introduction to this book, it really does warm my heart to hear such stories. I’m going to hunt down a copy.

    • Naomi Bulger

      Hila I think Helene would be a woman after your own heart. I hope you find a copy! And maybe I need to write you a letter…

  • Astrid

    Hello Naomi! How are you? So good to read that you got the package and that you enjoyed it. You’re right, “84 Charing Cross Road” is a fantastic book. I’ve never heard about “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street”, but I’ll add it to my TO READ list. :-) Are you familiar with the great novel “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows? If you like reading epistolary novels, you’ll probably love this one.

  • Corenne Tavares

    Wow what a find and what a story. I had pen pals as a child but never thought of having one as an adult. I would love for my daughters to have pen pals but its doesn’t seem to be what kids do these days. Maybe we should start something between our 2 countries …

  • jody

    Hello Naomi!
    Why haven’t I stopped by here more often? such a beautiful space you have here! xo

  • NewLifeOnTheRoad (@NewLifeOnRoad)

    Sounds like a fantastic book to read! I used to have a penpal many years ago – when I was in high school. I used to write all of the time, and he would reply with a letter. Then one day the letters stopped coming and mine were being returned to sender. Still wonder what happened to him.
    I like that letters have a personal touch – more than emails! Mind you I send emails more than hand written letters :)

  • Kate @ Our Little Sins

    Hmmm, funnily enough I don’t have any penpals though I’m sure if I put in more effort I would… What a delightful sounding book.

    • Naomi Bulger

      Kate, you just sent out 100 postcards to people all over the world! If that’s not “putting in effort” I don’t know what is!

  • debbrightandprecious

    I have never read that book – another one to put on my ‘list’. Lovely photos of the gorgeous things Astrid sends you. I know you are the perfect pen pal – your attention to detail, your creativity and your kind heart are beyond beautiful.

  • Sparkling Flora – a gift for you from my penpal | Naomi Bulger

    […] and ephemera, much of it handmade. You can see some of Astrid’s amazing mail packages to me here and […]

  • Kate

    Awwww 84 Charing Cross road! My mum’s favourite book!

    Have you read “The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society” ?? It’s SOOOOO lovely and full of letters!

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