Inside Stanfords: The World’s Best Travel Bookstore

London is a dangerous city for bibliophiles. The city has a ridiculous wealth of great independent bookstores and if you’re a compulsive book buyer like me, you might give your credit cards quite a workout. My first literary stop in London is always Stanfords, the legendary travel bookshop that’s been patronized by everyone from Michael Palin and Bill Bryson to Ernest Shackelford and Dr. David Livingstone.

U.S. bookstores typically have small travel sections that are mostly filled with guidebooks, but in the U.K., shops feature a much wider selection of travel writing. I’m like a kid in a candy shop at Stanfords, which has three floors filled with tens of thousands of books and maps. Even the floors are covered in giant maps – the ground floor is covered with the National Geographic map of the world, the first floor with the N.G. map of the Himalayas and the basement with a giant A-Z map of central London.The shop is organized by country; so if you’re planning a trip to Korea, for example, you can find guidebooks, travel narratives and fiction pertaining to that country in one spot. Even if you aren’t planning a trip, it’s the kind of place that nurtures curiosity and inspires people to travel. Chris Powell, the company’s Chief Executive, said in the interview that follows that Stanfords must reinvent itself as an Internet-led travel information service in order to survive in an era when people are buying fewer books and maps.

I accept that reality but I hope Stanfords doesn’t change too much because, to my tastes, it’s just about perfect as it is.

How old is Stanfords?

It was founded by Edward Stanford in 1853 in Charing Cross, very close to where our flagship store is now, and we moved to our present location in 1901. There are about 80 shareholders in the business now but until last year, James Stanford, the great grandson of the founder, was chairman of the board. He retired in November. Michael Palin is also one of our shareholders.

And did it start out as a travel bookshop or a general interest bookstore?

It was actually one of the first suppliers of U.K. Ordinance Survey maps.

And it’s now the largest travel bookshop in the world, correct?

As far as we’re aware, that’s right. I don’t think you’ll find anyplace else that has three full floors of maps, guidebooks and other related books and gear about every country around the world.

We have about 110,000 product lines in our system, but maps are always being revised and updated, so we have about 35,000 products in the store. One of our bestselling items is actually a shower curtain with a map of the world on it.

And it’s not just books and maps, but also travel gear.

Correct. We’re known for travel books and maps but we’re trying to change our mission a bit at the moment. We’re known as the world’s largest travel bookshop, but obviously bookshops are suffering in the U.K. just as much as in America. Guidebook sales and map sales are decreasing thanks to eBooks and Google maps. We’re trying to change Stanfords into an Internet-led travel information group, a bit like Trip Advisor, but not as focused on hotels.

If you go to our website, we’re adding country information and blogs. We’d be very interested in blogs from your readers. The Internet is the future for retailers so we want to turn the shop into more of a travel emporium.

How will that play out?

Most of our customers are travelers, so we can supply them with guidebooks and maps, but we’re extending the range of travel accessories. We’re trying to become more of a one-stop shop for travelers. I don’t mind if we’re not selling books in 20 years time but we’ll keep the good name of Stanford’s going in travel information and accessories.

We also rent out space to travel companies in the basement. Last month we had the Swiss Travel Center down there. If we have travel agents in house and can show people photos of destinations, and perhaps have videos playing as well, it can help people decide where to go.

What I love about the shop is that I don’t necessarily have to be going anywhere. I like the way the shop is organized by country, so if you want to learn about a given country you can find not just guidebooks about it, but also travel narratives and fiction pertaining to that country. I have to imagine that Stanfords has inspired a lot of trips over the years.

Absolutely. But commercially, to keep this place going we’ll have to extend the model and have more pictures in the store. The retail environment here is very difficult and we’ve had the worst June weather in history. People are coming in to browse, but the reality is that they are buying fewer books than they used to.

Travel sections in U.S. bookstores are much smaller than the U.K. and our publishing houses publish fewer travel narratives. What do you chalk that up to?

I’m married to a New Yorker and I love the Strand bookstore, which is a fantastic shop. I don’t really know why we have more travel books. We’ve pinched one of your writers – Bill Bryson is living here.

Quite a few famous travelers have visited your shop prior to their journeys, is that right?

Well-known figures such as Dr. Livingstone, Ernest Shackelton, Amy Johnson, Cecil Rhodes, Florence Nightingale, Sir Wilfred Thesiger and Michael Palin have all started their journeys at Stanfords. The fictional character Sherlock Holmes bought a map from Stanfords in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.

In the U.S. a lot of people treat bookstores as showrooms. They go to browse, but they buy on Amazon or other sites. Is it the same in the U.K?

I don’t think we’ve seen a lot of that. People come in to get maps and books and buy other things as impulse purchases. But I do think our future is as an Internet-led business.