In what has been a calamitous year on our high streets, I thought I would shine a spotlight on one of my favourite shops in the whole world: Stanfords.
This temple to travel has sold maps and books to record-beating explorers and award-winning authors, curious travellers, the world’s governments and geographers alike since 1853. And a few weeks ago, staff forecast that they could not last until spring.
In October Stanfords announced the grave threat of closure they faced after 167 years trading – if they didn’t act fast. You might have seen that they began a crowdfunding campaign, aiming to raise £120,000, the amount they estimated they would need in order to avoid shutting up shop.
I, like thousands of other travel lovers, could not sit idly by and watch them fail because of causes outside of their control. So I clicked through and donated. They had raised £63,000 at that point. It was looking good, I thought, but they’ve got a way to go yet.
Stanfords has always been situated in and around Covent Garden, ever since a young Edward Stanford took over the Charing Cross Road premises of Trelawney Saunders, a seller of maps, charts and stationary. He had risen fast in that company’s ranks and seized the opportunity in 1853 to become sole proprietor after the partnership he’d been promised had dissolved.
Edward Stanford’s company became the only map maker in London, partnering with a man named John Bolton who ended up as Chief Cartographer for 67 years. His 1862 Library Map of London was described by the Royal Geographical Society at the time as ‘the most perfect map of London that has ever been issued.‘ I’m glad to be able to say that as a teenager smart phones weren’t around and I’m pretty sure I used maps similar to this one to navigate my way round London!
Such was Stanfords’ success, in 1873 they needed new premises, moving the shop to 55 Charing Cross and the printing press to 12-14 Long Acre. By 1885, Edward Stanford was able to retire and pass the business on to his son (give you one guess as to his name).
Under Edward Stanford II, the company achieved a royal warrant as official cartographer to Queen Victoria. The Long Acre address became a flagship shop with all enterprises under one roof from 1900. Some of their customers? Florence Nightingale, Ernest Shackleton and Captain Scott. That’s what I call a good fanbase. I could go on and on about their illustrious history, but you can read the full story on the Stanfords website.
In 1997, the only shop outside of London was opened, in Bristol. You’ll also find a Stanfords concession store inside the Royal Geographical Society building in Kensington Gore. In Covent Garden, the Stanfords flagship remained on Long Acre until January 2019 when they moved 100m across the road to a purpose-built two-floor shop on nearby Mercer Street.
David versus Goliath?
I have to be honest here and admit that I preferred Stanfords’ old Long Acre site more than the current address. It was across more floors and suited wandering about at will, which I’m a big fan of in shops.
The new site is indeed a third smaller in size, a deliberate choice so it turns out. As CEO Vivienne Godfrey said in this BBC Business interview last year, ‘some of our regular customers were disappointed. But when I, or members of staff, explained to them that it was a question of either remaining and going out of business, or leaving and thriving, everyone understood’. With everything in the business no longer under one roof on Long Acre, the building had become too big for its purpose.
I had prepared to sound the drum for supporting independent businesses due to their losing fight against chains. However, it’s not all gloom as business forecasts for independent shops during the pandemic compared to chains has been surprisingly promising in the UK, according to a new study. They have shown themselves to be more resilient in adapting than big high street names, perhaps because changes haven’t need to be rolled out so widely or signed off by big boards.
That’s not to say that many indy shops aren’t shutting down or hanging by a single thread – they are. The high street is by no means a level playing field. After the lockdown began and all non-essential businesses were asked to close again, many independents and their associations pointed out in dismay that some big chains like Rymans and Carpetright are keeping open despite being non-essential and supermarkets such as Tesco and M&S are breaking rules by allowing sales of non-essential items such as books and clothes. It has seemed to be one rule for the chains and another for independent shops in this second lockdown.
Stanfords’ crowdfunding campaign was launched before the second lockdown was announced. When I checked on their progress this time last week I wondered if the £120,000 target would even be enough to save them. Donations had reached £94,000. Inching closer to their target, but needing more love.
I heart Stanfords
Don’t worry, I won’t get soppy on you. I’ve actually racked my brain to recall the first time I stepped into Stanfords on Long Acre, but I can’t remember. Though I’m sure my brother and I visited with our dad on our numerous self-guided walking tours round London, in-between trips to Hamleys.
For me, it’s more that I just started popping in whenever I was passing. Then, I’d be killing time after work and make a beeline for its downstairs travel guides and travel classics table for a browse of curated picks. The huge fan was usually always whirring in one corner, lest your body as well as your mind be spirited across to the searing heat of the masai mara or the steaming humidity of an equatorial rainforest. Then, somewhere along the line, Stanfords graduated to being my number one destination not just for trip planning but whenever I was shopping for birthday and Christmas gifts, or wanted some inspiration for my own wish list.
This June, when ‘non-essential’ shops were allowed to open again, Stanfords was the first shop I revisited. I was excited to be back, though a bit glum to be the only shopper in there.
Some might say, ‘if they’re struggling to adapt, maybe let others fill in the gaps. That’s the beauty of capitalism.’
But ask yourself, where else in London would you find mini Tibetan flags, books on Captain Cook’s voyages, survival equipment and maps and globes of every size and for every need?
We would lose a lot more than just a shop if Stanfords was lost. We as travellers would be lost.
Early last week I checked the donations page again. Success! They had reached a tipping point and surpassed £120,000. At the time of writing, over 3,600 supporters have donated over £132,000.
It’s gratifying that so many people have supported a unique business like Stanfords. So much so, they decided to set a new target, £160,000, to enable them to future proof their website, digitise their archive and host bigger and better live events in the future. Perhaps you might consider a donation? Their optional rewards, from cartographic maps to signed books and tours are pretty awesome.
And look out on Wednesday for a special midweek edition of my blog, featuring the chance to win some travel goodies, all from you-know-where.
So is that job done then?
Help an indy out
However much better than expected indy shops have fared during the pandemic, businesses like Amazon and major supermarkets will still be in our faces and within easiest reach over Christmas.
What about other independent shops? The UK’s bookshops, fashion boutiques and all great little shops selling everything in-between. They face a rocky Christmas, particularly if they can’t reopen from 2nd December, though they do have a lot of supporters to their cause. And there are ways we can all do our bit to support our favourite independent businesses.
The recent expedited launch of bookshop.org – selling books in the UK on behalf of 130+ independent book shops – is a cause for celebration. It doesn’t cost bookshops anything to feature, they can create their own store fronts on the website and the Bookshop team commits to fulfilling deliveries. It was proving so popular in the US that Bookshop launched in the UK well ahead of schedule. Instead of getting blasted on Amazon by algorithm-fuelled choices that undercuts small business, on bookshop.com you’ll only find curated recommendations from booksellers and authors, and each participating bookshop receives full profits from each book sold. How great is that!
Retail consultant Mary Portas’s Adopt a Shop concept encourages the public to each pick three shops in our local area, commit to buying from them instead of usual big online retailers and encourage our friends to do the same. It is an easy and practical way to individually do our bit to keep the small shops we love open.
And, showing for some time that independent shopping can co-exist with big business, American Express’s Shop Small campaign will be returning for another Christmas. Amex relaunched the scheme during the spring lockdown too, showing that the small shops we love deserve to be here to stay, not just for Christmas.