The Map Store is folding after 80 years in Milwaukee
There was a time when I, and folks like me who love and are fascinated by maps, needed no directions to Milwaukee Map Service, aka The Map Store, currently located at 3720 N. 124th St.
Walking into a shop full of globes of every kind, maps for taking on trips, maps for framing and hanging in your den, travel guides to a dozen or more African nations, and on and on, was a wonderland – a place that fed dreams of exotic vacations and expeditions to every corner of the planet.
On its website, it calls itself – appropriately – "A Place about Places."
I had a friend – who left us too early – who, like me, loved maps and would always call to report back to me on the treasures he'd found on a recent visit to the store.
Alas, now anyone seeking out The Map Store can type it into a phone or GPS and be there in no time – no paper necessary. If, for some reason, you do want to buy a physical map, you're likely following the most direct route to Amazon, not to a shop on the border between Wauwatosa and Brookfield.
And, so, Jan Swain, who has run the place at three different locations since 1962, has announced that the store is closing at the end of March.
"Everything's changing," Swain told me when I stopped in last night. "It's all going onto the internet now."
Swain, who will retire when the shop closes, is 78 and has been in the business his entire life. His father Clarence opened the store on 45th and North Avenue in 1937.
"He was a Midwest boy, from St. Louis. He was just back from the war in '21 – World War I," Swain recalled, standing next to a rack of books of travel guides to China, Thailand, India and other Asian destinations, "and he decided to become a salesman."
Clarence, his son said, began by selling maps door to door.
By the late '30s, Clarence had the shop, which he operated until his death in 1954. At that point, Jan's brother took over, and when Jan finished college, he moved into the business too – and he's been there ever since.
"It was three brothers running the business then," Jan said of the long-lived family business.
In 1991, Swain moved Milwaukee Map Service to Mayfair Road, near Watertown Plank Road, where it remained until about five years ago when he moved to the current, high-traffic location, across from a Culver's, just up from a Target a block or two from a Home Depot.
To the right is the checkout and a wide variety of globes. To the left, racks filled with colorful travel guides and maps to countries, states, cities, parks and more. Running straight back from the entrance is a corridor lined with reprints of historical and other maps of interest.
There are nautical charts, hunting maps, fishing maps, volumes of county plat maps, atlases upon atlases. In addition, the business offered a range of services including map laminating, mounting and framing, and even custom map-making.
The shop is a specialized one, which means a lot of folks might not shop there regularly, but most seem to have a story about visiting before a big vacation or trip, or in search of a specialized map.
"A trip to The Map Store was my immediate thought when I researched traveling through Europe with friends 12 years ago, when we planned for driving through Europe again three years later, and when we hit the road to Denver just a few months ago," Velia Tarnoff told me.
"Sure, you can still order maps online, but seeing them 'in-person' and flipping through them helps the buying process. 'Is this one too big to fold-out in the car?' 'Is this one the right size for holding while I'm trying to find house numbers in Venice?'"
Former Milwaukeean Taylor Pipes said he was a devoted customer of the shop and will miss it, but also noted that it's another small shop disappearing from the retail landscape here.
"What saddens me the most is that Milwaukee used to have some very, very good niche stores, and it's sad that the map store is closing," he said. "It's truly a feat that he kept it open as long as he did. I just wish I was close enough to buy a few more maps to frame for my house."
Talking about the shop, Swain smiled a lot, but it was that sort of fragile smile one suspects might end up squeezing out a tear or two.
When the shop closes – first, he has to sell off the inventory and even the fixtures, which are discounted up to 50 percent off – Swain said he might head out to Los Angeles to help out his daughter, who lives there.
"It's not that I'm a guy that hates the cold," he said. "I enjoy four seasons. But it's time for a change."
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