In 2003, while studying for a graduate degree in geography, I started working weekends at Stanfords, a London shop that styles itself as the world’s biggest and best map and travel bookshop. 2003 also happened to be the store’s 150th anniversary, and so a major interior renovation was in order. This makeover primarily consisted of each of the store’s three levels being outfitted with a bespoke vinyl map that spanned the entire floor area: a map of the world on the ground floor (the Europe section), a map of London in the basement (the UK section), and a map of the Himalayas upstairs (the International section). The gimmick worked: whether you were there to replace a torn road map or to read up wishfully on an exotic destination, this store put the world at your feet.
I staffed the till in “International,” advising on which guidebook was best for Southeast Asia (Lonely Planet), Africa (Bradt), or South America (Footprint). Some recommendations were based on personal experience; most was hearsay that we turned into received wisdom. My colleagues and I were all travellers of one type or another—backpacker, linguist, hiker, gourmand, surfer, migrant, child of migrant, or refugee. I had particular cachet among the staff because I had previously contributed to an edition of Let’s Go: Turkey, and could therefore offer first-hand anecdotal opinion to anyone travelling to Istanbul. We of course tailored our guidance to the budgets and interests of our customers, directing aspiring foodies to Fodor’s, privileged-yet-broke students to Let’s Go, ecology-minded trekkers eager to practice “ethical travel” to Moon Travel Guides. From our lofty positions behind the cash register, we liked to think we could identify upcoming trends in newly hip destinations faster than the airlines.
Guidebooks have been around at least since Ancient Greece, beginning as informative lists of ports of call for sailors. Literate Christian pilgrims could also count on the circulation of copied texts suggesting the best land routes to the Holy Land. Likewise for Middle Eastern or South Asian Muslims making the hajj to Mecca. And 10th century China fostered the development of travel narratives as a sophisticated genre of Song dynasty literature. But tourism in the modern sense is largely a phenomenon that began with the 18th– and 19th–century English elite, by which point an expected part of an upper class education was the Grand Tour. Experiencing a reliable circuit of sites from Classical Antiquity—Venice, Florence, Rome—and studying the food and culture of France, the hiking trails of the Swiss Alps, and the paintings of Flanders were all meant to be edifying for the gentleman-in-training. The point was decidedly not the modern reliance on relaxation through vacating the mind, becoming unoccupied, going on vacation. Vacation, in use in English since the 15th century to mean a period when official business is closed, only came to be associated with leisure travel in the 1870s (the British still prefer the church-derived term holiday). Before then, you didn’t travel to refresh, because travel was exhausting; you traveled for inspiration, training or faith. The point of the Grand Tour was to experience the refinery of cultural immersion. It was intended to be more educational than recreational, more illumination than consumption.
Before then, you didn’t travel to refresh, because travel was exhausting; you traveled for inspiration, training or faith. The point of the Grand Tour was to experience the refinery of cultural immersion.
The Grand Tour popularized the words tourist and tourism, words utterly commercial in their contemporary connotations. Guidebooks and consumer maps were, in fact, the first sold goods to pave the way towards the professionalization of hospitality. In the 18th century, travelers relied on illustrated descriptions of the architecture and scenery to organize their journeys. Starting in the early 19th century, pioneering authors and publishers like Mariana Starke, John Murray, and Karl Baedeker formalized the modern guidebook, introducing rating systems and lodging recommendations. In so doing, they helped to turn the aspiration of travel among an expanding bourgeoisie eager to escape the polluted air of rapidly industrializing cities into a market. The tourism industry, which soon included transport booking agents and purpose-built hotels, was born.
Into this milieu came the entrepreneurial Edward Stanford, a printer and seller of maps. When he opened his printshop and store in 1853, he was already a prominent mapmaker in Central London. He was in high demand. British colonialism was on the march, railways were collapsing distances and reinventing the very notion of time, and the need to understand the world extended far beyond leisure travel. Edward Stanford and his son and grandson were particularly proud of their maps’ roles in affairs of state. Edward Stanford II was named Geographer to Her Majesty the Queen in 1893. In 1939, with war on the horizon, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is rumored to have commissioned Fraser Stanford to map the growing power of Hitler’s Germany. Throughout this period, Stanfords could boast of famous customers both historical and fictional: public health reformer Florence Nightingale and polar explorer Ernest Shackleton began planning their expeditions in the shop; Sherlock Holmes sends down to Stanfords to obtain a map of Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles. To be worldly, it seemed, required knowing where to find the right map.
When I worked there, paper maps were still as much of a draw as the exhaustive selection of guidebooks. Carefully selected maps of each region had surprising strengths and provenances; the most thorough hiking maps of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, for example, were in Russian, though some people purchased these for the graphic qualities of their Cyrillic lettering and bold Soviet color schemes. World Aeronautical charts produced by the US Federal Aviation Administration had some of the most detailed topographical information, useful to long overland trekkers as well as amateur pilots—plus, they made for very cool wrapping paper. We also sold globes, atlases, phrasebooks, children’s geography books and excellent Rough Guide CDs that catalogued the diverse musical genres that emerged in particular countries and cultures, including the underground rage of Beijing punk or the percussive criollismo lamentations of Afro-Peru.
The inventory that I appreciated most, however, was our lovingly stocked shelves of “travel literature.” Organized by region alongside the guidebooks and maps were novels, memoirs and travelogues that evoked the place in question, from colonial elegies by Isak Dinesen or Gertrude Bell to exploratory essays by Bruce Chatwin or Sir V.S. Naipaul and the independence bildungsromans of Tsitsi Dangarembga or Chinua Achebe. This rich collection was no doubt intended to accompany the traveller on her journey—what’s a vacation without some destination-appropriate pleasure reading, right? But these books were just as appealing, if not more so, to the armchair traveller who had no plans of leaving London anytime soon. Enabling the dream of faraway lands appealed as much as planning the route.
Within the walls of Stanfords, travelling abroad could be aspiration, inspiration, or education. But a different, unpleasant face of travel presented itself each day as I’d step out for my lunch break, exiting onto the crowded Long Acre just as the droves of shoppers in sharply accented American or the teenage patois of Italian were in full swing. Long Acre is the main drag of Covent Garden, separating the eponymous market and West End theaters to its south from the fashionable shops to its north. To any Londoner, mention of the area provokes immediate disdain. Tourists! The area gets so crowded on weekends and holidays that occasionally the Covent Garden Tube stop, just a few blocks down Long Acre from Stanfords, only allows passengers to disembark, never to board the train.
Locals complaining about tourists—and avoiding touristy parts of town—is a familiar refrain in the chic neighborhoods of global cities that attract vacationing foreigners, from SoHo and Times Square to Fisherman’s Wharf. In Berlin and Barcelona, anti-tourism sentiment has bloomed from eyerolls and caustic graffiti to a genuine protest movement that encompasses grave concern about excessive strains on infrastructure and the rising cost of food and shelter. Low-budget air travel, tech-enabled home share sites, and the rise of the service sector and marketplace of “experiences” have certainly accelerated the possibilities and reach of tourism in recent years. Yet tourism today is primarily associated with a particular kind of pleasure travel: conspicuously consumptive, uncouth and uncool. To be sure, most of the culturally curious kids buying guidebooks from me at Stanfords as they planned gap years or exchange programs would have blanched with horror at the accusation of being a tourist. So too for my well-heeled, older customers browsing the Michelin Guides or Fodor’s; hunting for out-of-the-way fine dining options was a world away from responding to the multilingual tout beckoning outside a garishly lit restaurant advertising “typical,” “original,” or “authentic” fare with picture menus. No, these were travellers. Not tourists. The guidebooks they bought were for casual reference only; a platform for individual exploration, with handy info on bus routes and museum opening hours, not a plug-and-play itinerary of hotels, restaurants, and excursions.
One of the many ironies of the smartphone age is that the diversification of expertise has led to the homogenization of opinion.
They were also, way back in 2003, definitively not crowd-sourced. While some of the guidebook publishing companies have leaned into the digital age more effectively than others, many of them have proved no match for online, on-demand reviews verified by fellow travellers, if not your very own Facebook friends. The endorsement sticker in a restaurant window in Paris or Phnom Penh is more likely to be a request for a TripAdvisor review rather than proof of being featured in Lonely Planet or Let’s Go. Everyone is a travel writer. A few write stylish blogs. Hundreds of thousands more like, vote, rate or heart emoji the best food and lodging on their smartphones.
One of the many ironies of the smartphone age is that the diversification of expertise has led to the homogenization of opinion. While TripAdvisor and Yelp certainly have more restaurant listings than would ever fit on the pages of a print guidebook, today’s tourists are pushed in fewer and fewer directions under the tyranny of majoritarian listicles and approval rate percentages, not to mention how good the entrées look on Instagram.
And today’s maps, of course, are even more exploration-averse. Getting lost in a foreign city—which is surely one of the greatest joys of travelling for pleasure—is no longer an option, as long as you prepaid for some roaming data. Nor is there room for the cartographic nuances of distinct paper maps produced and optimized for uses beyond the quickest route from A to B. I highly doubt any non-Russian speakers hiking in Morocco these days are following a map in Russian. While international travel has increased over the past decade, travel publishing has experienced a sharp decline. In 2014, world travel guide sales in the US and the UK were just under half of what they were in 2005, as more people opt for the digital integration of search and mapping functionality, crowdsourced intelligence and handheld access in seeking out the information they want.
But the guidebook is not dead, despite predictions to the contrary in 2010—when industry forecasters thought Google Glass and augmented reality would bankrupt travel publishing within a few years. After Google purchased and made moves towards discontinuing Frommer’s in 2012, the Frommer family managed to buy it back and ramp up digital offerings and slim, bestselling city guides. The following year, an American investor bought Lonely Planet at a loss of nearly $120 million, yet shortly thereafter, the company began an aggressive strategy to move informational content online while diversifying its print offerings with photo-heavy gift books to commemorate travel rather than to plan for it. As has been learned elsewhere in publishing, making books as visual, tactile objects is one way to differentiate between the value of flipping through pages and the efficiency of clicking through search terms. The last few years saw a modest uptick in sales of printed guidebooks and travel literature in the English-reading world. I learned about these promising recent trends in an article in The Financial Times that bookends its coverage of the travel publishing industry where it began: with a trip to Stanfords. The article concludes on the hopeful note that, in 2015, the now 165-year-old store returned to profitability for the first time since 2002.