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.

Classic Travel Writing: Jack Kerouac’s ‘Lonesome Traveler’

While blogs take up most of my travel reading these days, every now and then I like to dip into an old classic. So on a recent flight to Washington DC to attend the Gadling bloggers summit, I read “Lonesome Traveler by Jack Kerouac.

This slim volume contains eight stream-of-consciousness essays in the style you’d expect from one of the leaders of the Beat Generation. For example, the author tells a friend:

“Deni the reason I followed the ship all the way 3,200 miles from Staten Island to goddam Pedro is not only because I wanta get on and be seen going around the world and have myself a ball in Port Swettenham and pick up on gangee in Bombay and find the sleepers and the fluteplayers in filthy Karachi and start revolutions of my own in the Cairo Casbah and make it from Marseilles to the other side, but because of you, because, the things we used to do, where, I have a hell of a good time with you Den, there’s no two ways about. . .I never have any money that I admit, I already owe you sixty for the bus fare, but you must admit I try. . .I’m sorry that I don’t have any money ever, but you know I tried with you, that time. . .well gaddam, wa ahoo, shit, I want to get drunk tonight.”

When you have a monologue like that, you know you’re in Kerouac territory. The posts range from his time hanging out with William S. Burroughs in Tangier to his jobs as a fire watcher and on trains and boats.

Sometimes the best travel writing is that which takes you back to a place you love, in my case old New York City before its seedy heart was cleaned up and dulled. Kerouac takes us on a tour of all the crazy Times Square spots where the Beats used to hang out while a cavalcade of oddballs passes by. Through all this blur of activity Kerouac wonders, “Why does Times Square feel like a big room?”

Wow, yeah! Times Square does feel like a big room, even fifty years later when I hung out there. That broad open space enclosed by four walls of skyscrapers with all the people coming and going has a strange homey, interior feel to it. A good travel writer can put into words what you’ve always felt about a place.

And Kerouac is a damned good travel writer. “Lonesome Traveler” is filled with quotable one-liners about booze, sex, solitude, trusting strangers, nature and just about everything else. The one that perhaps best sums up the Beat mentality is actually by Gregory Corso, who in the New York sequence says, “Standing on the street corner waiting for no one is Power.”

Not a bad summary of the attractions of travel.

Ian Frazier on Travels in Siberia

For most Americans, Siberia is a place for the exiled or the condemned, not the holidaymaker. Its land mass encompasses 1/12th of the planet’s surface area and is chock full of natural resources, but remains mysterious and misunderstood.

The prolific American writer Ian Frazier, author of ten books and a regular contributor to the New Yorker, made five trips to Siberia between 1993-2009 and chronicled his adventures in “Travels in Siberia.” His work was recognized as a notable book of the year in the New York Times and made it onto the best books of the year list in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Kansas City Star.

You wrote that in your early 40’s you were “infected with Russia.” Can you describe your motivation for taking these trips to Siberia?

It was a general fascination with the country. After the fall of the Soviet Union, all of these parts of Russia that were previously inaccessible were suddenly open. I wanted to take advantage of that and I had friends who had come from Russia during the Carter administration and could suddenly go back.

You talked a lot in the book about how beautiful Russian women are and how Americans had this false notion during the Cold War that they were ugly, masculine brutes. You also wrote that John Quincy Adams thought that Russian women were ugly. So did their looks improve or was he just wrong?

I think Adams was wrong. I don’t know what he was seeing but he went out of his way to describe grotesque-looking women. The Marquis de Custine, who I think was a much better observer than Adams, wrote a book that came out in 1840 about his trip and he defined the beauty of Russian women in a way that I think is still applicable. He said it’s a combination of the beauty of Asian women and the Nordic beauty that is very beguiling in the same way that Russia combines East and West. There is something that is very mysterious and beguiling about Russian women.

In 2001, you took a seven-week drive across Russia with two guides, Sergei and Volodya. Tell us about the Renault you drove across the country that kept breaking down.

It was a diesel; it had been a delivery van for dairy products. It was more like a coal-fired vehicle; it felt like a steamboat. It seemed very crude and simple- it kept breaking down, but they kept figuring out how to get it going again, sometimes with parts they found on the road. I think we paid about $4,000 for it. The theory was that we would sell it after the trip. They said I’d get that money back- ha, ha, ha, that never happened. As far as I know, it’s still sitting in somebody’s backyard in the village of Olga on the Pacific Ocean.That’s the village where Volodya met a woman he decided to leave his wife for, correct?

Right. He met a pharmacist while we were passing through there in 2001, and by the time I returned in 2005, he had left his wife in Sochi and moved all the way across the country, to Vladivostok, to be closer to her. So the trip really changed his life. I tried to find him in 2009, but I couldn’t track him down.

The Crazy American who likes seat belts and reindeer meat but not pork fat and vodka…

You wrote “safety is never the Russian’s primary concern” and mentioned that your request to have seat belts put in the Renault was viewed as a bizarre demand. Why do you think Russians have a different attitude towards seat belts and safety in general compared to Americans?

Hard to say. People live really hard and they have total contempt for what we take for granted in terms of safety. If you put your seat belt on people don’t even understand why you would want to do that. My request for seat belts was viewed as a real peculiarity. Maybe it’s just that they have plenty of other problems to worry about- why care about things like seat belts, smoking, drinking, or the rest?

And on the topic of health, Volodya thought that eating pork fat and chasing it with very hot tea was good for you?

He thinks that the tea washes the fat away- melts it. This is pure pork fat, not even like fatty bacon with a streak of meat in it.

But you wrote that you really liked eating reindeer. How does that taste?

The reindeer was some of the freshest meat I’ve ever had. I’ve had elk, different types of deer and game but this was really special.

It doesn’t taste like chicken?

It tastes a bit like elk, very tender and good. It was boiled, too. It almost tasted like pot roast, but better. But food is very uneven in Siberia; you can get some really bad food.

Your long road trip ended on 9/11, and your general impression was that the Russian news media was implying that we deserved it based upon our support for the Afghan mujahedeen?

It was, ‘what did you think was going to happen, you were the ones funding these people when they were fighting us and now look what’s happened.’ But also there was a great deal of sympathy for Americans as people. It was amazing how much sympathy and affection there was for us on a personal level. People would come up to me and tell me how sorry they were about 9/11. There’s still a huge amount of affection for America.

Your first few trips to Siberia were during the summer and you wrote that the bugs were as “inescapable as distance and monotony.” Are they the worst in the world?

Yes, absolutely. We wore gloves; we laced our boots up with our pants tucked inside. We wore beekeeper hats and had mosquito netting. It didn’t help much.

Never go to Achinsk, or linger in a Siberian bathroom…

Staying on the topic of unpleasant travel realities, you also wrote about the appalling condition of Siberian bathrooms and noted that Americans are a bit obsessed with toilets.

People in other parts of the world live in older buildings and are used to dealing with sewage in older ways. We’re just used to cleaner bathrooms. Dirty toilets aren’t just in Russia. But a really disgusting toilet in a place where the temperature never goes above zero, like an outdoor toilet, develops grossness that you can’t imagine. You get a stalactite effect; everything freezes and builds up in a kind of tower of filth. Summer or winter, their toilets are disgusting.

You published a lot of sketches in the book, but you didn’t stick around in a Siberian toilet long enough to sketch one, did you?

God no! You go into it almost with your eyes closed and just hope to come out. Russians consider us squeamish because they’re used to it, but we aren’t.

You wrote in the book “never go to Achinsk.” Was this the ugliest, most polluted city you visited?

I only got close to it, but it looked horrible. We had to roll up the windows; you could smell it from a distance. They make cement and process aluminum. It is the most blighted place I’ve ever seen in my life. It was horrible even before they got that industry. It’s just been a historically awful place. Someone writing in the 19th century wrote that birds couldn’t’ even fly over the place because the toxins killed everything within a 50 miles radius.

You also mention how bad the trash problem is.

For a place that had a socialist ideal, it’s the most every man for himself place I know. There is no concept of the public good. People destroy public spaces very quickly. You go up a hallway in an apartment building, and it’ll be filled with cigarette butts and all sorts of trash. And you can’t put a light bulb in a hallway because people will steal it. So the hallways have to be completely dark. But inside people’s homes, it’s all very nice. The distance between order and chaos is just the distance of your doorsill.

The higher the level of street smarts in a people, the worse the country…

You wrote, “nothing is self evident in Russia.” What did you mean by that?

It’s a place of many layers- anything that’s visible, there’s always something going on behind that. It’s a place of incredible street smarts- people know how to solve problems. But I would say that as a general rule of thumb, the higher the level of street smarts in a people, the worse the country. It’s like everyone’s trying to figure out something for themselves but the country as a whole has been destroyed and abandoned. Some of the nicest towns you can find in America, the people are terrific but they don’t have street smarts.

You revealed in the book that you received a $22,000 advance from The New Yorker for your big road trip. Do you have any idea how much that trip cost you?

I burned through a huge amount of that. The New Yorker published about 25,000 words of the book, out of about 170,000. From the advance money they gave me, I basically broke even.

You studied the language as well. I once traveled across Russia without speaking Russian and it was extremely difficult. Did you find that you needed to learn the language after your first trip there?

A lot of Russians speak English, but out in remote areas of Siberia not many people do. I started studying right after my first trip and then worked on it intermittently all the way through. It’s not a total disadvantage to have crude language skills because it tends to make people feel superior to you, and that’s not bad. I ended up talking to a lot of elementary school teachers, because they were patient in speaking to me.

You learned Russian but were still a victim of Russia’s dual pricing schemes, where foreigners pay more than locals, right? I think you had a Russian friend try to buy you a ticket for a ballet at the Russian price, but it didn’t work?

They have these old lady ticket takers- they can tell the difference between a foreigner and a Russian. I thought I could get past them with a ticket for Russians but they spotted me as a foreigner immediately. The difference in the ticket prices is huge. I think I paid about 10 times the price locals paid. My Russian friends said, ‘oh we’ll buy you the ticket,’ but it didn’t work and it was very embarrassing.

Do you think that your guides, Sergei and Volodya have seen the book?

I think Sergei has, but I haven’t heard from him in some time. I don’t know whether the book insulted him or not. It hasn’t appeared in Russian yet, and I’m not sure about Volodya. I was impressed with their fortitude and ability. They did a great job. Russians have all kinds of problems, but they’re really tough people and very smart. They get underestimated all the time in the West. Napolean underestimated them. Hitler underestimated them.

You noted in the book that Russians consume twice as much alcohol as the amount considered dangerous for your health by the WHO, and men now live to just age 59, on average.

Russia has a lot of problems; alcoholism is certainly one of them. Women’s life spans are 10-12 years longer. You encounter drunks and have to deal with them. I didn’t drink. People saw that as totally crazy. I would tell people I had a stomach ulcer and people would accept that, or I’d sketch, and people respected that too.

Dressing for 40 below…

You worked on this book over a period of 17 years through 5 trips, why did you wait so long to publish it?

The first three trips were in the summer and I knew I had to experience Siberia in the winter and see some prisons there before publishing the book.

What’s it like to be in a bitterly cold place like Yakutsk in the winter?

You need boots with a very good tread because the streets are like polished, hard, deep snow. Russians don’t use salt on the streets. So you could easily fall and hurt yourself. It was sometimes 40 below zero and windy, so I had thermal underwear, snowmobiling overalls, and an L.L. Bean down coat that was so heavy with down you had to cinch it around the middle. But if you’re sitting in a vehicle, and they don’t have heat, you’re going to freeze your ass off anyway. But people there get used to it. I’d see women in high heels, and if you look on the ground, you see the snow is punctured everywhere with little high heel marks, which look like ski pole points.

One of the places you seemed to be very fond of is a town called Veliki Ustyug. Tell us about that place.

Veliki Ustyug at one point was the richest city in Russia during the time when Russia’s main export was fur. It was a sort of clearinghouse for sable and other furs coming out of Russia and Siberia. The place is at a strategic river confluence and there are hundreds of churches in the town and when I was there they had just re-gilded all the onion domes. And it’s on the banks of a river, so it’s very much a vision of what a 17th century Russian fairy tale city looks like. Like a lot of other places in Siberia, there are also lots of beautiful women there.

What could an American see in Siberia on a two-week trip?

On a short trip, you might fly to Moscow, and then connect to Novosibirsk. It’s very representative of Siberia- it’ll give you an idea of what it’s like. There’s a hilarious, huge shopping mall out on the taiga. I was there in the winter and there’s no light. There are millions and millions of stars- that’s the great thing about Siberia. The Trans-Siberian is slow as hell but you can take the train east. To get to Veliki Ustyug, you have to drive; we did it in a two-day drive from St. Petersburg. But that’s not Siberia, that’s still Russia. You can also fly to Siberia on Korean Air from Anchorage. You change in Seoul, but you’re in Vladivostok, which is an amazing place as well.

California Dreaming…

You wrote that Chekov thought that Krasnoyarsk was the most beautiful city in the world.

He may have said it was the most beautiful in Russia. I thought it was a pretty place and it’s very different from the rest of Russia. It has a more Asiatic feel and you delight in the Pacific atmosphere of it. It reminded me a bit of California.

You also wrote that Blagoveshchensk looks like Palo Alto.

Not Palo Alto today but how I remembered it from when I was a kid. And Vladivostok really is reminiscent of San Francisco. It has hills like San Francisco, it has late-19th century architecture like it, and it has geography like it- it has bays and inlets; it has that same kind of feel.

When Americans think of Siberia, California isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.

No. But there’s a part in the book where people were selling watermelons, and I’d never seen so many in my life. This is Siberia- how did that happen? Well, it’s a huge place. People think of it as cold but it can also be very hot.

Near the end of the book you wrote about Russia’s “incomplete grandiosity.” What does that mean?

Russia is like an idea that sounded great but didn’t work out. Communism sounded like it would be a great change from the inequality and cruelty of the czarist years but it didn’t work. They always have an idea of something great over the horizon- we’re like that too. There’s an unfinished quality, and there’s a fantasy or dreamlike quality to the place. They have this huge country and they keep flinging themselves at it- they haven’t mastered it yet, but they keep trying.

Ian Frazier is the author of ten books and writes frequently for The New Yorker. His new novel, “The Cursing Mommies Book of Days,” will be published in October.

Photos by Sigrid Estrada, Dave Seminara and via Flickr: Efenstor, Sashapo, Eva Rinaldi, cramnic, and Robert S. Donovan.

Upcoming travel blogger conferences for 2012

If the word “conference” immediately conjures images of tipsy, poly-suit clad conventioneers, comic book geeks, or coma-inducing workshops, you obviously haven’t attended a travel blogger gathering.

‘Tis the season for some of the year’s biggest travel industry blowouts. Each has a different focus–some are for accredited travel writers, others hone in on the burgeoning travel blogging industry or events tailored for the public. What they all share is an emphasis on networking with industry professionals, travel trends, and continuing education in the form of field trips, workshops, seminars, panel discussions, and yes, a fair bit of partying.

Below, our picks for the best in travel industry camaraderie and information exchange:

Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX)

The year’s most anticipated travel scribe gathering will be held June 15-17 in Keystone, Colorado. Expect a mix of over 350 fledgling and veteran writers, PR and travel industry experts, guest speakers, and workshops. In your downtime, take advantage of Keystone resort and environs by hiking, mountain biking, paddling, fly-fishing, or riding. Psst. Europe TBEX will be held in Lausanne, Switzerland, October 11-13.

New York Times Travel Show (NYT)
Held March 2-4 at Manhattan’s Jacob C. Javits Convention Center, this is a great event if you’re an accredited writer with a specific niche (Industry Professional Sessions include topics like “Focus on Africa,” and “Focus on Travel Media”); there’s also a “trade-only” day. The public and and newbie writers can explore the Exhibition Hall, check out a variety of cultural events to be held on five stages, and let the kids run amok in the Family Fun Pavilion. Bonus: Accredited travel professionals can attend the Friday Exhibition Hall and travel industry welcome reception, and Saturday and Sunday seminars and Exhibition Hall free of charge.

Travel Bloggers Unite (TBU)
Feel like a tax write-off trip to Umbria, Italy (did I just say that)? From April 20-22, this UK-organized conference unites travel writers and bloggers with travel PR experts, tourism boards, and travel companies. Seminars include photo walks and workshops, and using social media. Best of all, delegates will be able take free post-conference tours of Umbria.

Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference

Lonely Planet guru/Gadling editor Don George co-founded this renown industry event with Book Passage owner Elaine Petrocelli in 1991. Held annually at Petrocelli’s Marin County bookstore (located 15 minutes north of San Franciso; the other Book Passage is a tiny shop in San Francisco’s Ferry Building). The event has attracted in the past luminaries such as Tim Cahill, Larry Habegger, and Gadling’s David Farley. This year, esteemed writer Susan Orlean will be in attendance, and the schedule includes four days of seminars, workshops, panel discussions, and optional evening field trips. If you’re serious about travel writing–and few places provide as much topical diversity as the Bay Area–sign up, stat.

Be sure to check out Don’s article on “Top tips for TBEX and other writers’ conferences” before you sign up or get on a plane (they say advice doesn’t come cheap, but this is free, baby).

[Photo credit: Flickr user Dia™]

Presenting Xtranormal’s “I want to be a travel writer

Want to have your travel stories published in a book?

Have you ever wanted to have your travel stories published in a book? Well, now here’s your chance. The bloggers behind wegetthere operate under the strong belief that “travel means freedom”, and they strive to create a community of travelers, explorers, and adventurers. Taking their mission one step further, the bloggers have decided to put together a book, relevantly titled “Travel Means Freedom”, written by the travel community.

Anyone is eligible to share their travel stories. All that you must do is click here to be guided through the 3 steps:

  • Download the Microsoft Word template for your story.
  • Write a travel story that is about 1,000 words long.
  • Submit the contact information form.

That’s it! Submissions are being accepted through November 22, 2011. The book will be available in print and digital format, and selected contributors will receive 80% of the profits made from digital book sales. To learn more and submit your story, click here.