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Iconic Travel Bookshop Maps Out New Life

by | Jan 16, 2019 | News

One of London’s best known and most iconic bookshops, the travel specialist Stanfords, is leaving its famous Covent Garden site and has opened a new store in a new retail development close by in Mercer Walk.  It celebrated the move with a party attended by publishers and travel writers, among them Benedict Allen and Phoebe Smith who jointly announced the shortlists for this year’s Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards, the winners of which will be revealed on 28 February.

The move brings to an end 118 years of bookselling on the same site.  Stanfords shop on Long Acre in Covent Garden has been a fixed point in the UK book industry for more than a century.  The founder, Edward Stanford was an employee of an existing map shop in London’s Charing Cross in the 1840s.  In 1853 he took over the business and changed the name to Stanfords.  The store moved to Long Acre in 1901 and the company’s growth coincided with the golden age of exploration and the spread of the British empire.

Over the decades the store has seen many famous customers, among them the polar explorer Captain Scott, the Victorian nurse Florence Nightingale, the famous ‘lady with the lamp’ in the Crimean War, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.  Indeed, in Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes visits Stanfords to buy a large scale map to help solve the mystery.

More recently, in 1982 British army strategists came into the store and bought every single map pertaining to the Falkland Islands. Shortly after, war was declared.

The new store contains various themed ‘rooms’, as if customers are travelling the world within single retail space, and over the stairwell are replica hot air balloons – which the store also sells – in honour of that great fictional explorer, Phileas Fogg, from Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days.

Stanfords’ Chairman and CEO Vivien Godfrey said: “This exciting move is all about ‘right sizing’.  Our instore business remains very important but we have had rapid growth of our online business and need a better distribution of space between office and store.  Nielsen, the global measurement and data analytics company, carried out market research for us showing that Stanfords is primarily a destination shop.   Our customer base is very loyal and many people tell us they make a pilgrimage to Stanfords when in London, so we hope they will be delighted with our new premises.”

Some have wondered whether there is such a need for maps in the age of Google and mobile technology.  The store’s map specialist Martin Greenaway says: “There will always be a place for maps.  Sat nav is unreliable because it doesn’t always know where you are when you are walking around and you might walk quite a long way in the wrong direction before realising you have gone wrong.  Maps don’t do that. You can really study the area you will be travelling in and you get a proper sense of perspective which you can never get with a phone because the screen is too small.  Once you’ve worked out your route with a map, it is much easier to follow too.

“Using a map makes whatever journey you are taking into more of an adventure.  It becomes exploration rather than a mechanical process.  Added to this, there is a great satisfaction in opening, reading and refolding a map, just as there is with a physical book.  My favourite map, which I have on my wall at home, is the 1890 special edition of Stanfords’ Library Map of the World, overprinted with ocean currents and trade winds.  It is a thing of beauty.”

It is not known which retailer will occupy the famous site.  Certainly  book industry historians and travel enthusiasts will be glad to know that the Stanfords name will remain since it is picked out in elegant lettering on the shop’s Grade II listed frontage so that this site will forever be the original ‘home’ of travel writing.

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