This week I had dinner with booksellers in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and, in a self-reflexive gesture, my mind referenced time and again one of my favorite films, 84 Charing Cross Road. Starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft, it’s a gem of a film–a love story where the principals never meet, a love affair based entirely on the life of the mind. Hopkins plays Frank, a married British bookstore owner in the period of reconstruction after World War II, when food rations and scarcity of goods still affected the nation. Bancroft is the American writer Helen Hanff–the film is based on her memoirs–who requests some rare titles from Hopkins, initiating a life-long correspondence and friendship.
The film’s pleasures lie in its subtlety–Helen’s singleness (or old maidenness) is never remarked upon, and as the decades pass, neither acknowledge their growing love and admiration for one another. It is a love story where the love is as much for books as it is for each other. The film gets a number of things right–the excitement of opening a newly arrived shipment of books, the intense personal investment both characters share in the bookseller-customer relationship, Hanff’s look of wonderment when she finally arrives at the bookshop, at the end of the movie.
In one of my favorite scenes, Helen sends Frank and his employees a care package including dried goods and canned ham. The employees marvel at it, in utter delight, and we watch as they share the food with their own families. That moment encapsulates the fine balancing act between the two countries–America may be the superpower possessing material wealth and industrialized goods, but war-torn Britain is still the land of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Woolf. Helen may not be well-off–the pre-war New York studio she lives in is tiny and her income as a TV writer sporadic–but she has a prototypically American can-do attitude and is rich in kindness and generosity of spirit.
As I mentioned before, Frank and Helen never meet–Frank dies–but at the end of the film, when Helen is at last able to afford to come to England, she gets to meet Frank’s widow, played by Judi Dench, who tells her, in a devastatingly beautiful speech, the depth of the connection Frank felt for Helen. At that point, the viewer understands the poignancy of their relationship–the intense affinity and kinship that can be found by two people who connect over the quixotic defense of literature; the ways in which sharing books can be an oddly intimate experience, like sharing a soul; and finally, the unspoken eroticism of bonding over a great book, as ecstatic as sharing an entire religion with only one other person.
Other bookseller movies I love include the very underrated The Love Letter, starring Kate Capshaw and based on the Cathleen Schine novel, and Notting Hill, where Hugh Grant plays a charming bookstore owner who falls in love with movie star Julia Roberts. The opening scene is about how hard it is to get people to come to readings, and though it was cut from the finished film, it can be found in the original script. (Essentially, Grant has to literarily bribe people to come to a reading at his store–it’s very funny.)
I have a feeling I know why booksellers make good movie heroes and heroines–probably the same reason loan sharks and hedge fund managers make such good villains.