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New City Guidebooks by Women for Women : Publications: A series addressing the social and safety concerns of female travelers has finally surfaced. People will 'either love or hate' these books, says one editor.

July 18, 1993|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

When the great quake of 1906 set San Francisco afire, the flames quickly drew near the California Academy of Sciences, then on Market Street. The institution's collection of rare botanical samples was threatened, but survived. Why? A botany curator named Alice Eastwood rushed in, recruited volunteers, scrambled up six floors of crumbling marble staircase, and rescued native plant samples while her own house burned.

"I had never heard of this woman," says travel writer Harriet Swift, who recently unearthed that anecdote after 12 years of residence in the Bay Area. "Once I started to look around, I realized that even in San Francisco--an open and conscious city--there's a lot of marginalizing of women and women's stories."

Sure enough, the Alice Eastwood story cannot be found in Fodor, Frommer, Birnbaum or Berlitz. But if Swift has her way, it will turn up in her upcoming book on San Francisco for the newly unveiled Virago Woman's Travel Guide series. These books are apparently the first of their kind--a series of city guides tailored specifically to female travelers.

The first two volumes of the new series, on Rome and Paris, reached U.S. bookstores last month. The San Francisco volume is expected in 1994, as are guides to London and Amsterdam.

Conceived by London-based Virago and published in the United States by the Berkeley-based Ulysses Press, the series stands apart not only for its historical emphasis. Hoping to speak more directly to women readers and travelers than other guidebooks do, the authors also pay particular attention to social circumstances--such as how women alone or in pairs are treated in various restaurants--and safety.

"Where's the line between raffish and unsafe? A woman on her own or with children has a very different way of looking at things than someone who is with a husband or a boyfriend," says Swift. "It's like our mothers told us. You really have to be careful."

As a business venture, these books are a bit of a gamble. Though many booksellers agree that women of independent inclinations are a promising and previously underserved audience, Virago has never published guidebooks before. (The company, founded 20 years ago as a women's publishing house, has built a reputation for high standards and adventurousness, but mostly in the field of serious fiction and nonfiction.)

"They're going to be books that people either love or hate," says Ray Riegert, executive editor of the U.S. editions for Ulysses. "There's a lot more editorializing in these books than there is in most guidebooks . . . They go on at great length about things that other guidebooks wouldn't go on about at all."

And they're not shy. Instead of bearing the usual cover photos of the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum, the Virago guides carry the name of the city in large type and a blown-up detail from Leonardo's "Mona Lisa": one of her eyes, hinting at the woman's point of view to be found inside. The Virago New York volume, due in late August, will replace Mona Lisa with a comic-book-style eye, a la Roy Lichtenstein.

(Virago has, however, fallen in line with convention in at least one common practice of travel guide publishers: The guides' authors are free to accept "comps," which means the hotel you find lavishly praised may have provided free accommodations to the author. Many travel writers insist such practices are unavoidable and do not undercut their independence. That may be so, but readers might bear that background in mind when making their own decisions.)

It's still too early to tell what readers think of the Virago series, but a quick look at the Rome and Paris volumes confirms that they do make frequent and notable departures from the standard guidebook routine.

Most of the difference isn't in format: Like many of their counterparts, both books begin with a section on practicalities and continue with chapters on local geography, accommodations, food and entertainment, along with brief (less than 10 pages) rundowns on places to take children and business customs. (One does, however, find sections on feminism and sexual harrassment in both, with thumbnail biographical sketches of prominent women from history.)

Overall, it's the content embedded in the Virago books that shows a different perspective.

In its language briefing, the Paris book, by Catherine Cullen, includes a series of possible responses under the headline "When Pestered" (Sample: J'attends mon mari , "I'm waiting for my husband."). It also warns that in French, only one letter separates the phrase for "I have been robbed" ( J'ai ete volee ) from the phrase for "I have been raped" ( J'ai ete violee ).

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