An Odyssey Ending For The Backseat Atlas

Before a 15-year-old Tim Gravenstreter hopped on a Trailways bus for his first solo trip to the Windy City, his father gave him a piece of advice he still follows.

“Don’t stand on a street corner looking at a map trying to figure out where you are,” the elder Gravenstreter said. “People will mark you for a rube and take advantage of you.”

Although Tim had studied the Chicago map in the days before his trip, the teen was a bit overwhelmed after he stepped off the bus and wasn’t immediately able to place where he was. So he walked into a nearby department store and asked for directions … to the men’s room.

“When I got into the stall, I opened the map and figured out where I was and where I needed to go,” Gravenstreter said. “I really haven’t had a problem finding my way around since.”

Nearly a half-century later, portable GPS units, smart phones and the Internet have made paper maps a virtual relic. Although a few headstrong folks like my brother-in-law Sean steadfastly refuse to give up their dog-eared Rand-McNally road atlas, more and more people rely on technology to get them from Point A to Point B. If you’re under the age of 25, you may have never had to navigate using a traditional map, let alone use a compass.

Gravenstreter saw the writing on the wall last year, closing the Indianapolis map shop he and his wife Dayle had owned for nearly 30 years. First-time visitors were often overwhelmed when they walked into the Odyssey Map Store for the first time, the smell of fresh paper greeting them as they walked through the door. Thousands of maps from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe were stacked neatly on shelves and displays throughout the small shop on Delaware Street. Photos of Midwestern street corners lined the walls next to vintage globes and brightly colored geography puzzles for school children.

“I’ve met so many wonderful people,” Dayle Gravenstreter told me one autumn afternoon before they shuttered their doors for good. “African cab drivers who point out where they’re from on the map, a lot of military families, people going into the Peace Corps,” she said. “Everyone has a story and I’ve enjoyed listening to them all.”

One of those men came in seeking a map of Mars.”When we asked him why he needed it, he said he was building a spaceship in his backyard,” Dayle said. She never saw the man again. A knowing smile crossed her lips as she declined to guess if he managed to make it to his desired destination.

There was also the man who bought an antique-looking six-panel map of Paris at a Salvation Army store. He brought into the store to see what it might be worth. A lot, it turned out.

“It’d been commissioned by Louis XIV and created by the Royal Academy of Sciences and Sir Isaac Newton,” Dayle said. “There were 12-16 originals in existence. He paid $5 for it and it was worth between $1 million and $10 million.”

Customers planning major family trips had been the core of Odyssey’s business, but in its last remaining years, those people stayed home to do their research on the computer. Map collectors became the primary base, but antique globes and reproductions of 17th-century seafarers maps couldn’t keep the doors open. Dayle pulled one of the reproductions from the shelf, lovingly pointing out specific details, like the scary-looking sea monster trolling the southern Atlantic Ocean. Besides the map’s aesthetic appearance, she just likes the feel of it in her hands.

“I like to see things on paper, to get that larger view that you can’t get from a GPS screen,” she said.

Dayle lamented that many younger people might never know the pleasing heft of an atlas or the musty smell of an old glove box map; that old technology is no match for the instant gratification of a Garmin’s lifeless drone telling you where to turn.

I wonder what Tim Gravenstreter’s old man would say about that?

[Photo by Flickr user falco500]