Guide Me

Bay Area publishers tell us where to go

Guidebooks are like politicians: We rarely think about them until we really need them, and then they often disappoint. Lug one or more such books on a trip (as I just did for a honeymoon in Spain) and you'll quickly discover their limitations: circumscribed listings, out-of-date information, and maps that lead nowhere. Of course, no book can tell you everything you need to know about a place, but most purport to do just that. In short, guidebooks lie.

Having both made the sausage and eaten it, as it were, I can say that guidebooks are as heartbreaking to edit as they are to use. They take an astonishing amount of work to produce, yet they're obsolete the minute they go to the printer. They can't be priced high enough to cover the costs of putting them together: Even the most lavish, glossy guidebook, filled with expensive-to-create maps and color photographs, still has to come in paperback (who'd want to haul a big hardcover around?), and paperbacks cost less. On top of that, most guidebooks just don't sell a lot — there's too much competition (Amazon sports seven pages of guidebooks on the Bay Area alone).

Alternative formats don't help much. Online guidebooks have the advantage of timeliness without the benefit of portability — they're more likely to be up-to-date, but it's no fun to print a bunch of pages to take with you. Mobile guidebooks (the kind you can download to a handheld device like a Palm Pilot) seem both timely and portable, but they're a pain to use. Reading a map on a tiny screen is a drag, and because the devices have limited memory, most such guides cover cities rather than regions or countries, and even those not very well. Plus, you can't write notes in the margins.

When it comes to producing guidebooks that actually work, size does matter, but not in the way you might expect. Big publishers (Fodor's, Frommer's, Lonely Planet, Let's Go) have an obvious advantage in one sense, because they can use economies of scale — template designs, large print runs, hordes of college students willing to work for bubkes — to bring book prices down. But small publishers have the upper hand when it comes to quirky, one-of-a-kind guidebooks, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Bay Area. Moderate-size local houses — Avalon, Wilderness Press, Cleis, Chronicle — have consistently offered guides that enlighten and inform with fewer of the usual frustrations. They do so by narrowing their focus so tightly that there's less opportunity to lie.

Niche publishing is nothing new, especially among travel books, but here publishers seem to have taken the genre one step further. Wilderness Press, for example, is a small indie house based in Berkeley that specializes in outdoor guides. One of its most popular titles is Stairway Walks in San Francisco by Adah Bakalinsky. It first came out in 1984 and is now in its fourth edition, covering more than 350 stairways all over the city. At first glance, the subject may seem tiny, but the book is expertly focused: Stairs don't move, so the likelihood that the book's information will go bad is slim. The volume is now a bona fide best seller.

Another independent local press got so good at producing niche guidebooks that it was merged with yet another house: Foghorn Press, formerly based in San Francisco, is now a series published by Avalon Travel out of Emeryville. Foghorn did the original Dog Lover's Companion to the Bay Area back in 1992, and Avalon is coming out with the fourth edition in July. Unlike stairways, the subject of Dog Lover's Companion does move, but the book's narrow focus was such an anomaly when it came out amid the huge compendiums of all things Californian that it has succeeded.

Chronicle Books, here in the city, is still independently owned; its guidebook section (which I used to head up) has dwindled over the past few years. But one of its small travel ideas still surprises me with a smart focus: the 52 Adventures series (which I had nothing to do with). These decks of cards cover one city apiece, and each card is a perfect crystallization of place: One gives details for “an evening ferry to Sausalito”; others suggest antiquing on Market Street or a visit to the Flower Market. I've used the decks in L.A. and New York and always found them smart, portable, and just informative enough.

Even Cleis Press, the city's longtime bastion of sexy and sex-positive publishing, ventured into niche travel with Betty & Pansy's Severe Queer Review of San Francisco, now in its sixth edition. It's still the only locally produced guide to the gay Bay Area. Why trust the faceless East Coast editors of an omnibus guide like, say, Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA, when Betty and Pansy live right here?

There are a zillion guides to the city, including a few other niche titles published by local houses (like Heyday's so-focused-it-hurts The Trees of Golden Gate Park and San Francisco), many out of the Pacific Northwest (from companies like Sasquatch and the Mountaineers, both based in Seattle, and which have a good sense of the city), and a surfeit from New York (including S.F. Bizarro, by former SF Weekly staff writer Jack Boulware, published by St. Martin's). The ones that work best take advantage of the fact that this place is tiny — aren't we always bitching about how this is such a small town? — latching onto one facet of the area and making it shine. After all, when it comes to guidebooks, it's always better to know a lot about one little thing than a little about something big.

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