Going to Covent Garden a week before Christmas is a really, really bad idea. Yes, it looks lovely. Everything is atwinkle with the light of a million Rudolph’s noses and the festive cheer is contagious. But unless you’re someone who loves crowds (I’m not), you’ll feel like a total Scrooge for wanting to swiftly and silently murder the throng of jolly Yuletide shoppers.
No one wants to feel Scrooge-y.
The only reason to brave such an excursion is if you are on the prowl for a bookshop. Today, I battled through with my elbows out to get to Stanfords on Long Acre, the famous maps and travel bookshop.
The shop is full of maps! Maps as big as your wall and maps that fit in your pocket; maps of the whole world and maps of individual neighbourhoods. There are travel guides, travel fiction and travel accessories.
Stanfords is bigger and more commercial than most of my usual haunts, but variety is always a good thing and Stanfords really is a lovely place. I don’t know if it was just because it’s so close to Christmas, or if it’s the fact that everyone in the shop is dreaming about their next adventure, but the atmosphere was positively buzzing with excitement.
But when you think about it, of course it is! Even those who aren’t afflicted with a travel addiction know that the thought of vacating your everyday life for a little while and going somewhere exciting and different and fundamentally new is intoxicating. Looking at maps, spinning globes and reading about museums, galleries and independent cafes in other cities is a joy. In Stanfords, I think what people are really buying are the possibilities. They’re buying the knowledge that Spain and Thailand and South Africa and Brazil are out there, somewhere, waiting for them. They’re imagining that those places can be explored by strolls through piazzas, wanders through independent librerías and restaurants with ocean views or by treks through the forests, bike rides along the coast, hikes up the mountains. Stanfords has maps and books for all these possibilities, telling you how to cycle through France, jog in New York, hike in Tibet or bungee-jump in Vietnam.
Stanfords has everything you need for a trip to, say, Moscow. Maps of the city and all its neighbourhoods, a huge selection of travel guides, guides to the surrounding area, books about contemporary and historical Russian politics, histories of the Czars and the Russian Revolution and books written by Russian writers and set in Russia. Because who wants to go to Moscow without having read Tolstoy?
And the fact that Stanfords realises this is what I love most about this bookshop. Books are not only seen as accessories to or facilitators of travel, but also as travelling companions. They are worth bringing along not just to consult them about whether there’s a Starbucks in Lima, but also to complement your experience of the world’s invisible cities by reading the stories of their famous voices and their marginalised ones and by understanding the vast differences and, more importantly, the similarities between them.
Personally, I’ve always tended to separate reading from travelling, though I don’t know why I should! Although one of my favourite parts of visiting a new city is exploring its bookshops (in fact I got the inspiration for this blog in an independent bookshop in Stockholm), I tend to imagine that there are the real journeys I make through streets and cities and the imaginative journeys I make in books, while sitting in my armchair with a cup of Darjeeling. My visit to Stanfords today reminded me that a book, even if it’s just a map or a travel guide, is the perfect travelling companion. Not only does it quietly acquiesce without a single complaint to your insistence on visiting every single church in Florence, but it lets you stick your tickets and metro passes in its pages, to be pulled out and remembered one day years later. My own copy of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South will forever remind me of a romantic weekend in Sweden spent reading, drinking tea and eating kanelbulle in Östermalm, as will Strindberg’s Miss Julie which I bought there in a foreign language bookshop. One day, looking back at your swollen copy of Dubliners you’ll remember that it rained every day you were in Ireland; your tattered map of Tangiers will remind you that for the life of you, you just couldn’t get the layout of the city straight in your head and it will call to mind the many unplanned adventures you had in its back-alleys.