Meet the Little Map Publisher Doing Big Things

Herb Lester is producing paper maps in the face of the smartphone revolution.

Note: Herb Lester designed the chapter maps for both Issue One and Issue Two of the Gear Patrol Magazine. Free shipping for new subscribers.

“People tend to notice the illustrations. But what we consider to be the thing that sets us apart is what we leave out. It’s the discipline of a single sheet,” said Ben Olins, who is one half of the duo behind Herb Lester, a small publisher based in London that produces compact, unique guides to cities around the world. Paper maps are rare in 2016, when the smartphone has come to be map, compass and guidebook. But Herb Lester’s maps aren’t designed to get you from point A to point B, although they can certainly help. They’re for seeing the city through the eyes of Olins and his co-founder Jane Smillie — the eyes not of the tourist, but of a discerning explorer.

Back in the spring of 2010, the duo, who had worked together at several companies as producers in editorial and design positions, decided to begin their own publishing company. But, as is the case for many startups, they had no office space. So they met in sometimes crowded, sometimes unproductive coffee shops. “We decided to make a map of good places to meet and work, because we weren’t alone in starting a business with limited resources,” said Olins. That was their first editorial project, an accidental start to their mapmaking business. “We were both interested in this idea that you could convey something that has the potential to be very complicated and very long, but do it very succinctly,” Olins said. Their next target was Paris, “because Paris is so close,” he said.

After making a guide to being alone in Paris (“It’s ridiculous, you don’t have to go to Paris with a date and wander around molesting each other in doorways”) they made one for New York City. And after designing three unique maps in three major cities, they realized there was something to the idea of curating small guides — nothing too expensive, or too ordinary — accompanied by creatively-presented maps. As the company celebrates its sixth birthday this month, we caught up with the founders to chat about maps with personality, curating entire cities and the pitfalls of travel.

Q: Paper maps seem old fashioned in the era of Google Maps, Yelp reviews and Google search results. How do you compete?
Ben Olins (BO): “I think you’re right, we are quite old fashioned. But we don’t want a thousand restaurants, we just want ten really good ones. We aren’t giving information that people can’t find on Google, but we’ve tried and tested them. Google can’t do that. No one ever comes to town and says, ‘I’m here for a few days, can you tell me a thousand places to go?’ You just want to know what’s good.”

Jane Smillie (JS): “We answer our own frustrations. When we go to Berlin, we don’t want to go to the same restaurants you can find in New York or London. It’s hard finding places that are particular to a city. It’s easy to have that posh ‘McDonald’s experience.’”

Q: Take me through your process.
JS: “Well, we decide if it will be general or themed. [Relative to other publishers, Herb Lester’s guides are all focused; some, however, tend toward general category, like Eating Queens, while others are distinctly specific, like The Velvet Underground Map of New York. —Ed.] Then we start researching. We read books and talk to people, and we end up with quite a long list. Then we go to the city and we visit. For each place, am I really happy to be there or am I bit ambivalent or disappointed? And then we narrow it down to thirty to fifty places.”

BO: “We mix it up so it’s not all in one area, or all bookshops. It’s the same process that anyone would do if they were completely mad. You stress, you research. We’ve had a pretty miserable experience of working and then [our readers] can just go do it. The key thing always is: ‘Is this good? Can I consciously recommend this?’”

Q: What’s up with the name?
BO: “We wanted a name that was a name but we didn’t want to use our own. We just made it up. It felt a bit like, from another time, like it was established, but not to fool people. More like: timeless. We get emails that start with ‘Dear Herb.’ I feel bad responding as just Ben or Jane because it feels like Herb just couldn’t be bothered.”

Some Herb Lester Guides, at a Glance

Austin On The Hoof (£4)
Hello Chicago (£4)
How To Find Old L.A. (£4)
London: The Collected Guides (£20)
Miami: An Open Invitation (£4)
New Orleans: Good Times (£4)
Speaking of Portland (£4)
New York: The Collected Guides (£20)
The Paris Collection (£14)
Around Reykjavik (£4)
Distinctively San Francisco (£4)
Seattle, Rain or Shine (£4)
Washington, D.C.: Mr Lester Goes To Washington (£4)

Q: You’ve talked about the “interchangeable travel experience.” Can you explain what you mean?
BO: “This didn’t happen exactly the same way in the States, because you don’t have the same proximity to Europe, but in the late ‘60 or ‘70s the package tour came [to England]. People stopped going to holiday at seaside towns in the UK. They went to Spain — to the Costa del Sol – where they demanded chips and beers and the Spanish accommodated them. Now, people think that’s dreadful: ‘Why aren’t you buying local food?’ But not back then.”

The version now is: Everyone takes pictures of the same coffee and the same magazine in cafes from Vietnam to Portland to Rochester in Kent. Where can I get a flat white? They’ve made this thing that people normally want to escape from. They’ve made themselves part of this thing where they want to recreate the same experiences wherever they are. Be in Brooklyn or East London and you will have almost the same experience. People dress the same and the menus will be almost identical. It’s not what I want.

JS: “As a tourist, you don’t get a sense of the place. Like if you were to go to Thailand and not set foot outside of the hotel besides having the experience that’s prepackaged for you. Travel literature emphasizes that you can go to a place and it’s great because you can feel comfortable and get the same stuff as home. It’s going to Spain and getting an English breakfast… but, for example, if you go to Junior’s [in New York City], there’s nowhere like that in London.”

BO: “I was in a restaurant in Pennsylvania and there was scrapple on the menu. I don’t know what that is, but I ordered it, because that’s the joy.”

Q: You just undertook an Instagram project in which you explored little-known spots around popular cities for the best photography. What are your other future ventures?
JS: “We’re working on a series of guides on French wines for a European wine merchant. We’re also in talks with a couple of cultural organizations in the UK, but it’s still in the talking phase. Mostly in the moment we’re working on our own projects: trying to publish five books this year on our own. Much of the anxiety is focused in that direction. We can’t talk about some of it, so you can say we are mute with excitement.”

BO: “We’ve got these ‘How to get out of London without really trying’ maps, for if you are in the city and you want to get out for a day or half a day using only public transportation. And we are also expanding on our How to Find Old L.A., because L.A. is very fortunate to be huge.”

JS: “Also, we’re working on developing an app at the moment. I’ve looked at quite a few travel apps. A lot of them have just taken the book and stuck it on the app. We use quite a lot of apps and the ones we use and the ones we like do a bit more than just dumping a load of information. For us it’s about how we get the information that we want on there. Simple and functional and easy to use.”

Read More in Our Magazine

Maps from Herb Lester appear in Issue Two of the Gear Patrol Magazine, 286 pages of stories, reports, interviews and original photography from five distinct locations around the world. Subscribe Now: $35

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Furniture & Design