As Stanfords prepares to move, are maps and travel guides history?

‘95% of the passengers on last night’s easyJet flight to Barcelona have all the information they need in their smartphone – until the device gets nicked on the Ramblas’

Simon Calder
The Man Who Pays His Way
Thursday 29 November 2018 19:34
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Simon Calder visits venerated travel bookshop Stanfords before site move

For your whole life, Stanfords has been selling maps and travel guides from its tall, handsome headquarters in Long Acre, central London.

Edward Stanford, cartographer to Queen Victoria, opened the doors of the Covent Garden location in 1901. Illustrious customers include Florence Nightingale, Ernest Shackleton and Michael Palin (though not on the same shopping expedition).

It is currently home to the world’s largest collection of travel books and maps and, if you prefer your cartography three-dimensional, globes.

For travellers, Stanfords has long been a shop window on the world, its shelves exuding inspiration. See if you can spend half-an-hour there without hatching a plan for a great expedition. You might walk in to buy a guidebook to Provence and walk out with a map of Peru or Panama under your arm.

If you are not in a position to Work Your Way Around the World – one of the multitude of travel guides Stanfords has sold – you can instead work your way around the world using maps and books. Start with the UK on the ground floor and ascend to Europe on the first floor or dive into the rest of the planet in the basement.

Stanfords has even featured in fiction, with Sherlock Holmes telling Dr Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles: “I sent down to Stanford’s for the Ordnance map of this portion of the moor, and my spirit has hovered over it all day.

“I flatter myself that I could find my way about.”

To find your way about Dartmoor, the Ordnance Survey’s Outdoor Leisure map 28 is just what you need – available from Stanfords for £8.99.

Yet to hike across the moor from Grimstone Cottage to Hound Tor, you could instead get the Ordnance Survey app on your phone – and zoom in close enough to see the layout of the wings at HM Prison, on the northern edge of Princetown.

I commend the paper version: you don’t want be alone on the edge of Fox Tor Mire when the fog rolls in and your battery runs out. “A false step yonder means death to man or beast,” as one of Conan Doyle’s characters warns. But away from England’s last great wilderness, many travellers will make do with the free, and excellent, phone version – or, if they are driving, become obedient disciples to the cult of GPS.

Add digital competition in the form of free online guides such as our own 48 Hours city-break series, and it is hardly ideal to be the leading vendor of travel books and maps – though we probably have yet to reach “peak globe”.

Generous premises which made commercial sense in the late 20th century, when demand for guides and maps paralleled the growth of travel, start looking extravagant in an age when 95 per cent of the passengers on last night’s easyJet flight to Barcelona have all the information they think they need in their smartphone – until the device gets nicked on the Ramblas.

So, after decades of sending people on journeys, Stanfords is going on a short trip of its own. A location laden with so much travel history will itself become history.

The stock and the staff are not going far: about two minutes’ hike from Long Acre into a smaller space in a new development at 7 Mercer’s Walk.

Vivien Godfrey, chief executive of Stanfords, calls it a “very difficult decision”.

“We’re telling all the customers ‘We know you feel badly, we know you love the current premises and so do we’,” she says.

Shrewdly, her firm is offering a preview of the new store: installing a “Christmas boutique” with fewer books and maps, but plenty of travel ephemera.

From 27 December, the paper products will move across from Long Acre. And by the end of January, only the ghosts of great explorers will remain to walk the floors of the place where so many adventures have begun.

But, says Vivien Godfrey: “Don’t be disappointed, don’t be nostalgic. Think about how Stanfords can help you with your travel in the future.”

Like the past, the future is another country – and as yet uncharted. As Stanfords prepares to move, are maps and travel guides history?

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