Sunday, August 16, 2009

To an unknown booklover from Helene Hanff

In my collection of books about books, one stands out for its author inscription. I found this gem on a bookscouting trip a few years ago and can only surmise the demise of a kindred spirit for this book to have found its way into a resale shop.

The book is The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, by Helene Hanff, published by J.B. Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1973. It's not really a book about books, per se, but it is the sequel, or follow-up, to the cult-status favorite of bibliophiles everywhere, 84 Charing Cross Road, the story of a twenty-year correspondence between New York writer and English literature lover Helene Hanff and Frank Doel of Marks & Co., the antiquarian book shop whose address was 84 Charing Cross Road.

The book and the movie of the same name are personal favorites of mine. So, you see, the book has to be included in the books about books section of my library and it resides right next to 84 on the shelf.

My copy of Duchess is a first edition, but what makes the book special is Helene Hanff's inscription on the front free endpaper:
To an unknown booklover,
Helene Hanff
I had read an unsigned copy before I found the signed copy, and near the end of the book she recounts her last day in London and a stop by her publisher's, Andre Deutsch, to sign twenty books for a group of Australian booksellers arriving the next day. She liked to personalize her books to fans with long or witty inscriptions, and not knowing who would get these books, she came up with the "unknown booklover" inscription.

Obviously, she repeated the practice stateside because my inscribed copy comes from her American publisher, Lippincott, in Philadelphia. Nonetheless, it has to be a fairly rare inscription I would think.

When I found the book and saw her handwriting, I thought to myself, "I am now one of your unknown booklovers!" What are the chances of finding that book with that particular inscription? I should have gone out and bought lottery tickets that day while Lady Luck was smiling down on me.

I also have an inscribed copy of the British edition published by Andre Deutsch, 1974. This one I got the more conventional way by buying it from another dealer. It has an amusing and somewhat mysterious inscription from Ms. Hanff, which I will write about another time. I'm still trying to find out if the names mentioned in the inscription tie into one of her anecdotes in the book.

In the [hopefully] very distant future, my demise will be at hand and I'd like to think that this book will find its way into the hands of another unknown booklover and the torch will pass. But until then, I'm the unknown booklover. Or at least one of a very small and very lucky group.

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