It's a damp day, Covent Garden's streets grey with drizzle, but the sun shines over the door of one Long Acre shop. The classy gold lettering lends an air of timelessness, but it's not the only thing that makes this regal building stand out from the surrounding designer boutiques; each of the large shop windows is underlined by the signature of Edward Stanford, the man who founded Stanfords bookshop.
The beaming entrance door is flanked by two white stucco pillars, whose cleanliness in comparison to the rest of the weathered façade has us questioning their authenticity. Further up, the building has a wedding cake quality to it — stacked layers, tapering off at the top. We know the upper floors are not original, but otherwise we'd have been fooled.
Promotional signs on the street marry traditional appearances with modern retail practises. The exterior suggests a musty, antique-style bookshop, so we're surprised to come face to face with modern shop fittings. We could be in any branch of Waterstones, the walls lined with orderly bookshelves, newly released books temptingly displayed on promotional tables at the entrance.
Non-bookworms are eased in gently with gifts, stationery, greeting cards and the odd toy. The stock is mainstream enough to keep Covent Garden's tourists happy, with nods to the current adult colouring book and Mr Men revival trends — but you still feel like you've stumbled on something special. After all, Stanfords claims to be the world's largest map shop.
Our eyes alight on a table of books dedicated to London. It's a delicious sight, one that warrants a few minutes of our time. Round the next corner, we find camping gear — a whole wall of torches, compasses and other items whose purpose we remain blissfully ignorant of. You don't get that in Waterstones.
Our instinct is to gravitate towards the smell of melted cheese and freshly brewed coffee protruding from the cafe in the far corner, but before we know it, we're standing in Madagascar. The floor of the ground storey, among a patchwork of wooden floorboards and various carpets, is covered in a map of the world, confirming our suspicion that this is no ordinary bookshop.
Downstairs, it's hard to concentrate on tomes about Mexican bird life and the wonders of US railroads when there's a giant map of London on the floor. Londonist HQ, natch, is buried somewhere under the cabinet dedicated to South East Asia, but that doesn't stop us trampling right over the rest of this Lilliputian London.
We're so busy following the Old Kent Road that we walk straight into a man who's unfolded a map of Jakarta — apparently they don't mind you getting properly stuck in here. He's as lost in his (admittedly more exotic) world as we are in ours.
Looking up, we notice the "please mind your head" signs attached to beams running the length of the basement. They're painted the same shade of cream as the rest of the ceiling, but we wonder... could that layer of Dulux be masking the original iron girders used to strengthen the basement in advance of the second world war, which resulted in the shop being used as an air raid shelter?
A quarter of this former air raid shelter is now buried in globes of all shapes, sizes, colours. The world has been reproduced in miniature hundreds of times over, as lanterns and drink cabinets, models and children's toys. We count 89 globes on display in the basement alone, and probably 100 more boxed and waiting to go to a new home. It's a cartographer's paradise.
Among these shelves, the store must have all the information (and some of the kit) you'd need to single-handedly circumnavigate the (real) world. That said, casual travellers just wanting to pick up a Barcelona city guide for a weekend break won't feel isolated either. Animal print cube chairs are scattered around the basement floor, inviting customers to linger over their decisions.
Perusing a volume about bookshops around the world, we realise that we're standing on a map of London in a bookshop in London reading a book about bookshops in London. Meta, huh?
The wooden staircase is a fascination in itself; The Wright Brothers meet Phileas Fogg meets Neil Armstrong. Vintage model aeroplanes line the walls, and one floor down, colourful hot air balloon models dangle teasingly above shoppers' heads. The ceiling at the top of the staircase is painted as a solar system — the sky's not the limit here.
The word that springs to mind is emporium. It's an orderly emporium. By the time we've spotted books displayed in an upright canoe, we're no longer surprised. The whole shop gives an air of belonging to true adventurers — the likes of aviator Amy Johnson, explorer Ernest Shackleton and nurse Florence Nightingale are among past customers.
If you've hit peak map, stop here, but if you can take more, head upstairs to the first floor, where things get a whole lot mappier. The floor here assumes the form of a contour map of mountainous terrain. The N and L straddled either side of the European literature stand lead us to believe we're in Nepal.
Any map you can think of, they've got it. Even if you're not in the market for a map, the wall art is worth climbing the stairs for. We spend longer than we should poring over 'The oarsman's and angler's map of the River Thames from its source to London Bridge', while a poster listing the countries of the world by size puts things into some perspective.
Half of this top floor is given over to serious cartography, which leaves us wondering what it is we've seen so far. It's kitted out like a stationer's shop or school supply cupboard, all glass topped tables with large, flat metal drawers underneath, and important looking people doing some serious cartographing (custom-made maps is one of the services Stanfords offers).
One wall is lined with swinging display hangers, the sort of which you'd see in HMV, the finer details of Australia or the mountain ranges of North America sitting where One Direction or Batman should be.
It's time for some cake. As we make our way down to the cafe, we cause a bit of a pedestrian backlog on the stairs as we stare in wonderment at the wall, or more specifically, at a map of London from 1878 (when Hampstead was considered a suburb):
The ground floor cafe calls itself Stanfords Coffee House, evoking memories of the time when coffee was a rather more serious affair, maps were first being drawn up, and places remained undiscovered. As an important aside, we may have found the best hot chocolate in London — a bold claim, we know, but the accompanying muffins disappointingly don't live up to their liquid counterparts.
The cafe area is small, cosy but open plan with six tables, an ideal peaceful reading spot on a weekday lunchtime but infinitely more chaotic at the weekend. Map cushions are scattered on the sofa, and more cartography lines the walls, as well as historic photos of the area, and the shop itself. The usual cafe clattering of dishes is replaced by acoustic music and the occasional beep of a reversing lorry on Rose Street, out there in reality.
Stanfords, 12-14 Long Acre, Covent Garden, WC2E 9LP
As of early 2019, Stanfords will be leaving its current location on Long Acre and relocating to a new store on nearby Mercer Walk.