It's an All Bar One now.
84 Charing Cross Road, that is. The most iconic bookshop in an iconic street of bookshops. And it's a pub.
The person who first lent me 84 Charing Cross Road may be able to see the positive side of this. Me not so much.
The first time I read Helene Hanff's most famous book was in a volume that included The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, a later account of her trip to London long after the death of Frank Doel. It's a delightfully London-y book, and Helene Hanff is like a Dorothy Parker that you wouldn't be scared to invite to your parties. Smart, acerbic, New Yorker, likes martinis, but paradoxically not prone to having feuds with people and attempting suicide. What's not to love?
When I borrowed the book first, I refused to give it back until I'd bought my own copy (this is still a sore point). I knew that I could never go to London without it, because when Helene Hanff finally made her life-changing trip to London, nearly a decade before I was born, she stayed in My Bit. My Bit is Bloomsbury. Next to the British Museum, close to Russell Square (one of my all-time favourite parks), walking distance to Oxford Street, Covent Garden and - natch - Charing Cross Road. I am extremely attached to My Bit. It has pretty brown-brick buildings that remind me of seeing 10 Downing Street on TV when I was a kid. Black Books was set there. UCL and Birkbeck are there. There is a three-story branch of Paperchase on Tottenham Court Road that I once visited with a friend late on a Thursday evening in December. We got a doubled-over giggling fit in the lift in our hotel because we felt so decadent buying stationery in the dark.
Substantial parts of My Bit also got blown up in July 2005. Usually, when places I love get blown up, I book a flight to them. Like Helene Hanff, bound for London still crippled by a recent hysterectomy, I can never just go to places. Disasters tend to drive me there.
Since I read 84 Charing Cross Road, the small volume including The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street has come with me on every trip to London. My edition has a quote on the cover, taken from the publicity material for the film adaptation, which describes the book as a love story. This incensed me the first time I read it - the platonic nature of Helene Hanff's friendship with Frank Doel is the best bloody thing about the book, as far as I'm concerned - but I got over it. It is a love story - several love stories - and that's why it comes to London with me every time. Partly because the second book is a love letter to My Bit (even if Helene never went to the British Museum, mad heathen that she was), partly because the first book is all about second-hand books, which I buy in vast quantities every time I'm in London, and partly because 84, Charing Cross Road is one of the best accounts I have read about friendship and how it can begin in the strangest of circumstances and survive for so long. When you find yourself in a city that you love in the way that normal people love other people, it's nice to have something to remind you why getting on the plane home is a good idea.
Annoyingly, though, I can't go into number 84 and buy a book each trip, as a sort of thank you to Marks & Co. for making my trips richer. But even more annoying is the other book that has to come with me on every trip to London, the only other book I've read that comes close to 84, Charing Cross Road in its love for London.
Forever Amber. Forever sodding Amber. 972 pages. Do you have any idea how much that thing weighs?