Stanfords travel bookshop launches crowdfunding project as it fights for survival

It’s a wet autumnal day, a second lockdown is looming, and like many in the UK I’m dreaming of faraway shores, sunny uplands and wild adventures. Anything other than the unholy pairing of pandemic plus British winter.

a person standing in front of a book shelf: Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

My bookshelves are well-equipped to assist in my fantasies, bulging with reminders of travels past: every country map for motorcycling the Pan-American Highway, a guide to trekking the Sinai peninsula, the classic Michelin 741 Sahara map from my London to Cape Town ride, a map of Tehran’s metro system, a kayaker’s guide to UK rivers, and more Ordnance Survey maps than you could shake a carbon-fibre hiking pole at.

This is not an unusual bookshelf for someone who has made a life in travel but there is something else that binds these items together: they all came from Stanfords, the map and travel bookshop in central London. Established in 1853 and trading in Covent Garden since 1901, Stanfords is an institution – and one beloved by anyone who has ever experienced the slightest whiff of wanderlust.

Judging by the outpouring of sympathy and support on social media, I was not the only one who felt pain at the news that Stanfords is facing closure – and this was before news of the second lockdown. There is something about the thought of losing Stanfords that hits hard. Like all the best shops, it offers more than just that: it’s a home-from- home, a reassuring haven in a choppy sea, and (under normal circumstances) draws travellers from all over the world.

In response to the crisis, Stanfords has launched a crowdfunding scheme with an array of rewards available for donations from £5 to £5,000, ranging from a cup of coffee to personalised maps, books and tours of its map archive. Its goal is to raise £120,000 to help it to survive until spring 2021, when it hopes London will have recovered and people are able to travel more freely. As CEO Vivien Godfrey explains, this sum will enable it to continue to pay the rent, taxes, wages and the extra costs incurred in making the store Covid-secure.

For me, London without Stanfords is unthinkable. It seemed that it would always be there – because it has been for so long. Born in 1827, Edward Stanford started out as a map-maker, becoming the official cartographer to the Queen before expanding into retail and going on to create and provide maps to the likes of Florence Nightingale, Ernest Shackleton, and Amy Johnson. Stanfords has moved with the times and, in recent years, has held events, including book launches andadventure film nights, plus establishing the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards. In January 2019, it moved from its Long Acre site to a new home (just around the corner) at Mercer Walk.

Established in 1853, Stanfords has been trading in Covent Garden since 1901.

© Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA
Established in 1853, Stanfords has been trading in Covent Garden since 1901.

Behind the scenes, the cartography department has gone from supplying military surveys to Neville Chamberlain to designing large-scale production maps for the James Bond films. But from a customer’s point of view, in a landscape of increasingly bland high streets, Stanfords remains an example of an independent retailer with a heart, actively supporting authors and specialist publishers, and employing staff with a love and knowledge of what’s on the shelves.

Cartographer Martin Greenaway has worked at Stanfords for 27 years and is fearful for its future. Footfall has collapsed during the pandemic, causing a 75% drop in sales, and online sales have also fallen by 15% due to restrictions on global travel. “The shop survived a bomb in the blitz,” said Greenaway. “So, I really hope we can get through this, but I am worried. Stanfords has been such a huge part of expedition history, and there’s nowhere else like it.”

Legend has it that Stanfords survived the blitz bombing thanks to its large number of Ordnance Survey maps being so tightly packed, which helped halt the path of the flames. It is going to take more than a stash of OS Landrangers to beat the current crisis, but globetrotters, armchair travellers and lovers of Stanfords can help. Most obviously, we can still plan our future travels and buy our maps and books directly from its website. We can also donate to the crowdfunder, helping to ensure that Stanfords survives as the traveller’s spiritual home and will still be there when the world opens up again.

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