We are back in London for our latest Artisans Column. We’re excited to have one of our favourite companies, map and travel guide makers Herb Lester. Herb Lester is made up of duo Ben Olins & Jane Smillie. Ben tells us their story…
We didn’t begin Herb Lester to publish travel guides, we began as a sort of micro contract publisher. In common with so many other new companies, we had no money for an office so we’d meet in coffee shops, most of which were quite horrible. Those miserable meetings led directly to our first publication, You Are Here, which compiled some of the better places to meet and work in central London. That map gave us an opportunity to work with a style of illustration we like and to put to use what we absorbed from our collection of guidebooks of the 1950s and 1960s, whose tone of voice seemed lacking in 2010, as indeed it does today.
We printed You Are Here in a very small run, sold some and then decided to do another, then more followed. At first they were very pure in intent; just our own fancies, things we found interesting or that exerted some hold over us – 1960s London, Old New York, curious and useful London shops. Now we have to think a little more long term and try to be somewhat strategic, but it’s still our approach to publish things that we like and want to read. If we didn’t do that we’d be lost and unable to judge the quality.
It is a sad fact that one can visit many of the world’s major cities and have an interchangeable experience. Eating the same food, drinking the same drinks, visiting the same shops. For many visitors, the only distinguishing characteristic is which cultural behemoth is ticked off the bucket list. We see our guides as a kind of counterweight to that. We’re interested in what makes places different, special, strange; sometimes those things are obscure and hidden away, other times they’re in plain sight. Our own experiences in foreign cities have taught us that what we value most from a guide is that it makes decisions easier, that it give us fewer, better options rather than simply list every possible place of interest.
Our guides are only modest in scale and in ambition, but we look to the greats for inspiration. Holiday magazine in the 1960s, which had wonderful photography and illustration, with stories by Slim Aarons, Ronald Searle, Edward Gorey, and features by Lillian Hellman, Joan Didion, Ray Bradbury, Joseph Heller, Herbert Asbury and many other distinguished names. The pieces are mostly long-form, with no must-see lists or bullet points, and the art direction is quite magnificent. We are huge fans of Betty James, who wrote a series of very witty London guides in the 1960s. She has a fantastically barbed tone and we like to imagine her typing furiously, with a cigarette in the ashtray and a strong drink close to hand. Another great inspiration is Kate Simon, her New York book, People And Places, is probably the best known. A glimpse at our shelves shows that she also published books on England, Mexico, Italy and Paris, and there were others too. Hers are guide books, but of a very literary type that has completely disappeared. We have amassed quite a collection of old travel guides now, some we enjoy for their design and illustration, others the novelty of the concept, many of them fill us with envy – for the beauty of the edition or the vanished places within.
We think hard about what to include in our guides and we make sure that anywhere mentioned is visited by one of us or by someone we know and trust. We don’t have the budgets to visit all the cities we’d like to write about, so we commission people who live there or who know them well. Those people have all been friends so far, which is important to us, not because of nepotism but shared interests. In fact friends and Herb Lester’s followers on Twitter and Facebook often lead us to wonderful places, and we’re always grateful for the tips we receive. We wouldn’t be able to do this without the internet and it would be a struggle without social networks, but as important as those are for the gathering and distribution of information, we believe that our printed products offer something that digital media can’t. The limitations of print work in the reader’s favour in our case – the internet can tell you everything, but it’s hard to know what to believe; Herb Lester can only give you limited advice, but what he does say you can trust. We’re happy about that.