Charing Cross Road was developed, in conjunction with Shaftesbury Avenue, by the Metropolitan Board of Works under an 1877 Act of Parliament at a cost of £778,238. The two streets and others such as the Thames Embankment, Northumberland Avenue, Kingsway and Aldwych were built to improve traffic flow through central London. It incorporated the routes of several older streets.
Charing Cross Road is renowned for its specialist and second-hand bookshops. The section from Leicester Square tube station to Cambridge Circus is home to specialist shops such as Zwemmer's (art books), and Murder One (crime books and romances). Most of these shops are located on the ground floor of a block owned by a housing association, which decided in 2001 to raise the rents sharply to bring them closer to the market level. This was opposed by the book dealers, who felt that they were providing a valuable service and contributing to the unique character of the area, and should not be treated in this way by a not-for-profit body. The association's counter-argument was that if the booksellers did not pay a market rent they were being subsidized by its low-income tenants. The booksellers attracted considerable public support and a reduced rent increase was imposed. Several of the bookshops closed nonetheless, including Silver Moon, apparently Europe’s largest women’s interest bookshop, which became part of Foyles. Smaller second-hand and specialist antiquarian bookshops can be found on the adjoining Cecil Court.
The northern section between Cambridge Circus and Oxford Street includes more generalist bookshops such as the venerable Foyles, Borders and Blackwell's. A long-standing correspondence between New York based author Helene Hanff and the staff of a bookstore on the street, Marks & Co., was the inspiration for the book 84 Charing Cross Road (1970). The book was made into a 1986 film with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins and also into a play and a BBC radio drama. 84 Charing Cross Road has not been a bookstore for many years - there is however, a brass plaque marking the site where Marks & Co. used to do business.
The music venue the Astoria is also located here, as is one of the sites of St Martin's Arts College, as well as the music shops on Denmark Street (known as Britain's Tin Pan Alley). A number of theatres are nearby, such as the Phoenix Theatre which has its entrance on the adjoining Phoenix Street.
An interesting local feature can be found in the middle of Charing Cross Road at its junction with Old Compton Street. Beneath the grille in the traffic island in the middle of the road, the old road signs for the now-vanished Little Compton Street can be seen. This road once joined Old Compton Street with New Compton Street.