By Kerry Tinga
On a single street in London the spaces keep changing, but on that same street, some spaces have not changed for decades, even centuries. One of the little gems of London, at least to me, is Stanford’s, a bookshop on Long Acre that was established in 1853 by Edward Stanford, a prominent cartographer. It occupies a former Victorian House, which dates back to 1901, and has for more than a century sold maps, then travel books and travel accessories. More than that, it sells the promise of escape and the ability to bring the whole world into your hands.
Walking into Stanford’s for the first time to look for a coffee table book that would have inspiring destinations, I found that the whole bookstore itself inspired anyone who entered to roam the aisles, as if they were roaming the world. Like most travel bookstores or even just the travel book section of general bookstores it is divided by locations, but the divisions stop there. In the section for Mexico, there is a Lonely Planet guide to Cancun and beside it Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate as well as a cookbook solely devoted to variations of tacos. There are maps beside travel guides beside memoirs and novels. I would pick up a book and would not know if it was fiction or non-fiction before I started to read the blurb. All I did know was that it was about a place and after picking it up and reading it would transport me there.
In the section for India I found a copy of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, a novel about a place that does not even exist, originating the mystical utopia that is known as Shangri-La hidden somewhere in the Orient. I bought the book because I had remembered enjoying Frank Capra’s 1937 adaptation, beautifully bringing me to a place that is not even here on Earth. Whether the place existed or not, I was transported without having to leave the room, either way, it might as well have existed the way New York exists in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City or Florence exists in E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View. Ursula K Le Guin once said, “Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren’t real, but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books.” Whether it is Shangri-La or New York or Florence, if it is a good book it will feel real. The power of written works, whether memoirs or works of fiction, is that they can bring the reader to another place and another time. What I love about Stanford’s as a bookshop is how well it seems to understand that power.
The idea of travelling to a foreign land is not just to see all the sites that Fodor’s or Lonely Planet tells you to go, but to have an experience and create memories as if you were in a novel about you. While the maps and the travel guides can help tell me where to go, reading novels and works by authors about their experiences or their character’s experience strike wanderlust in me. While many if not all of us wish we could be traveling right now, always going somewhere, on a train or a plane or a boat on the move for a new adventure, real life means we have school and work to attend to. A book can let us travel every single night before we retire to bed. Just for a moment, for a few chapters at bedtime, I am on the other side of the world.
I read Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea years ago, and imagined the quiet fishing village in Cuba he painted with his words. I was lucky enough to be able to visit Cojimar, his inspiration, last year during a trip to Cuba, completing the circle by fulfilling a dream I had had ever since I read the novella. As one of my favorite authors, I dream of the Paris in his A Moveable Feast and Pamplona in The Sun Also Rises to watch the running of the bulls, of the Africa he describes in several articles and a couple of non-fiction works. Stanford’s combines the romanticism we find in novels, with the practicality of guidebooks and maps and accessories, which is what I believe every bookstore should do.
In this era where most bookstores are downsizing and finding difficulty to compete with online retailers, like a sequel to You’ve Got Mail that writes itself, the mix of books to go with guides provides the bookshop goer with an inspiration, an experience, and all the things she needs to get started. A good book, and trust me there are plenty of them out there, will have the power to make you feel like you have travelled and then make you want to travel. I fear people are reading less and less these days. I myself have been pretty busy, neglecting to pick up new books, but it is important to take some time once in a while to get lost in a bookshop and then get lost in a book because it opens our minds and our world when we do not have the time or the means to physically travel.