Paper maps are novelties in a screen age

Photo from this article in the Providence Journal The Map Center in Pawtucket now run by California man after giveaway (

Andrew Middleton is a cartographer and small business owner from Central New York. He self published a book of scuba diving maps called Diving Monterey and the expanded edition is expected some time later this year. He runs the Map Center in Pawtucket Rhode Island, the oldest map store in New England.

Q. Andrew – So where are you on this big earth? 

I’m in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. It’s a small city north of Providence on the Seekonk river. We’re about 45 minutes from Boston. Close to the beach. I run The Map Center.

Q. So how did you get to own a Map Store? 

Going right for the good stuff huh? Alright. So in March of 2023 I may have been going through something of a professional slump and I saw on Twitter an article that was floating around my map nerd friends. It was from the Providence Journal, the ProJo as the locals like to say, and it was about this guy Andy Nosal who had been running the Map Center since the early 80s. He himself had bought it from another guy who bought it from another guy who started it in 1953. And it was still going in this old mill building in Pawtucket. Andy wanted to retire and wanted to make sure his adopted baby didn’t die on his watch so he was offering to give the place to anyone who sent him a compelling enough email about why they’d do a good job. And from all the way in Oakland California where I had been living, I sent him an email. It seemed like the kind of hard turn my life needed and my first email that sent in was written like a journal entry- half of it was convincing myself that it was a good idea. But Andy seemed interested and a couple of days later he cautiously said he wanted me to take over the Map Center. So I flew out and we met and he gave me a skeptical once-over and we felt the situation out. Truthfully I didn’t fully decide to move across the country until a few months later when it still seemed like a stupid idea but the kind of stupid that would be worth doing. If you have two good options, pick the one that’s the better story. I’ve been living here in Rhode Island since October. It hasn’t burned to the ground yet.

Q. Do people still want paper maps? 

Yeah. Absolutely. No question. Antique maps are a pretty safe industry. There are lots of antique map stores today. There’s one an hour away in Newport, one an hour away in Cambridge Massachusetts, one that’s three hours away in Portland Maine and there are a few in New York City. I used to love Schein and Schein in North Beach in San Francisco before they became an online only store. If you have a rare original you can charge whatever you want for it, which is wild because the vast majority of maps are government documents and mass market print media. That’s a very specific sort of store. The stuff is expensive. It’s old. It’s leaning on a brand of nostalgia and tradition to raise prices and it requires that the owner have an interest in research to know what’s valuable, collectible and worth acquiring. It’s the kind of thing that you need to know a lot about so you don’t get hosed. There are a lot of old maps out there that look valuable but aren’t all that uncommon. Antique map markets are also for rich people. They are not accessible to the vast majority of us. But unlike the art market which relies on name recognition and at least one art history class in college, most people can see an old map and think it’s pretty neat. It occurred to me that most folks have bought art and when they do it’s usually an artist they know or else the piece represents a good story. But I’ve never heard anyone talk about their favorite cartographer when they come to the Map Center. Not once. To be a good cartographer your content needs to speak to the audience. 

The bigger and more mysterious question for me is: Can I build a store off of something that focuses on contemporary cartography and do it in a physical location? Some people more talented than I have been able to pull it off selling their own work online. Only a couple of people in the US are doing it in a physical space with overhead. With rent. I like knowing that there are places like the Map Center still around and I want to be a part of keeping Rhode Island quirky and worth exploring. But it’s not 1995 any more. I sell gas station 8-folds and prints of USGS topo maps and guide books and trail maps but it’s hard to sell information that someone on the internet is giving away for free. The value add of a paper map is providing that information in a portable, digestible and familiar way that includes context and that does have value. Lots of folks buy paper maps for outdoor activities, trip planning and conceptualizing space in large areas or putting on their walls to remind them off a place they love or a place they want to explore.

People also like to see places they know and care about from a different perspective. We all know what we look like but the fact that we have mirrors is precisely why it’s fun to get a caricature of yourself at a state fair. It can be genuinely thrilling. This past week I invited the mayor of Pawtucket to visit the Map Center and to see his eyes light up looking at a 1930s water utility map of his beloved city was kind of amazing. And cartography didn’t end. More maps are being made today than ever before in human history and I’ve made a fair number myself. Is any of this new stuff valuable in a way that I can sell it to a public that isn’t already eyeball-deep in the mapping world already? Transitioning to that next phase is pretty new territory, pardon the pun. For me and for cartography generally. A good business relies on doing something no one else is doing. Of course, sometimes there’s a very good reason no one is doing something a particular way. I’ll let you know what I find out.

Q. So about two lifetimes ago I worked in a map store. You mentioned above contemporary maps. What about Vintage? Do you seek out old maps to sell?

People come by and donate stuff from their attics, cleaning out the garage. I’m not a scholar or antiquarian so I don’t make any claims about value or pricing and I don’t buy original old stuff. I’ll consign items if they’re interesting, like this awesome set of 1960s USGS Hawaiian Islands maps in raised relief. We also have awesome scanners and printers on site so we can do very good prints. But I really want to try to get living cartographers paid.

Q. So Rhode Island is the smallest state in the United States. What’s been the best part about Rhode Island for you.

I have been so busy lately that I haven’t done much in the way of fun. It’s bad, I know. The reason I felt good about moving back to the east coast is because my family is out here, Providence has a ton of character and an amazing art scene. One day when I have more time I’m going to take more art classes and be more involved in the community. It’s a real happening place with an amazing DIY energy. The Bay Area is an Arduino and Raspberry Pie region whereas Providence is more of a duct tape and paint town. I haven’t met a single software developer in the time I’ve been here which feels strange. Cartographically it’s a challenging region because it’s a small market and no one wants to spend lots of time making a map for such a small population of potential customers. I hope that means an opportunity for an under-served market.

Q. If I were making maps to sell could I sell them at the Map Center? What are you looking for?

My big experiment that I’m running is to see whether there is a market for contemporary cartography. Whether I can make a business around getting living makers paid instead of relying on the antique market. I like having the geoHipster calendar and the books and atlas’s and funky coasters and map themed embroidery kits and a book of hand drawn maps of cemeteries, a glowing map coffee table, just anything that helps us slow down and think about space. I want the map center to be asking us “where have you been all your life?” The entire internet economy is proof that there is money to be made on human curiosity and novelty seeking and I think that’s why it can be such a joy to explore and rummage around an old map store. I want to deliver that experience but with products made by people who are still alive and paying bills by making things. So if you are a cartographer out there or even if you just make something that helps people think about space differently, I want you to reach out to me and let me know what you make and why you think it should be sold at the Map Center.

Recreation maps tend to do well. NOAA nautical charts are ubiquitous but they still sell. There’s good demand for park and regional reserve maps. Most of them aren’t served by good maps and the state doesn’t really prioritize that kind of work. A map of whitewater rafting in Maine would do well. A good map of the Adirondack high peaks would crush. I think there’s a temptation among new GIS grads to make really big maps and the market for Blender-rendered US state elevation maps is completely saturated but it’s the small stuff done well that incorporates on-the-ground knowledge that will actually sell.

I do have a line. I have standards. There’s a lot of low effort stuff on Etsy that doesn’t say much about the world, stuff that feels kind of gimmicky. So on some level it needs to be true and have enough content that you can look at it for more than 15 seconds. If you clear that hurdle, let’s make a deal. You can send me stuff and we can do a consignment deal or I can buy a few pieces wholesale, I can license your image file and I can do the printing and shipping here. No one is going to get rich off of this but I think we can show the world that the world is still worth exploring. All of it, not just the Instagram parts.

Q. Weirdest Map you’ve run across while running the Map Center? 

I have a map called ‘Crisis in the Middle East’ from 1991. It’s kind of blocky low res but with a good color scheme. The map key shows mostly military targets, railroads, chemical plants, oil wells. The Soviet Union is still labeled. Culturally important cities like Mecca, Jeddah and Baghdad are all just another dot on the map. It’s not a rare piece, but it’s fascinating to me because it represents a time when the US was involved in Gulf War I and there were people whose loved ones were shipped overseas into harm’s way for a conflict and a part of the world that most Americans didn’t understand. Keeping track of your loved ones was a lot harder to do not long ago. We take the internet so much for granted. These crisis maps were cranked out in short order on massive scales because there was a sudden urgent demand for very practical, deadly geography to lay audiences. It’s one of my favorite maps just for what it represents with our changing relationship to information. I’m only 34 and I’ve lived through what feels like multiple information revolutions. I think this map represents my first and I’ve never seen anything like it. Deeply flawed, not rare per se, just special for what it represents.

Q. What is the most common Printed map that people want? 

One of our best sellers is a 1777 print of Narragansett Bay by Charles Blaskowitz, a Royal hydrographer of the British Empire. It’s beautiful and it represents a place people know well. What I try to point out to people is that the soundings recorded on it were to show where you can bring a ship of the line close enough to shore for firing and where all of the high ground that might hold a defensive gun installation. It’s an invasion map and if you’re an American, it wasn’t for your side. We also a print of the same map in French when the French navy stole it and copied it. Military planning documents have made their way into a surprising number of dining and living rooms in this state.

There’s a big difference between what people like looking at and what they’ll buy. Folks love the 1981 Soviet map of Rhode Island made in Russia but I’ve only sold one copy to a guy whose mom is from Belarus.

Q. Final question is yours – anything you want to tell the readers of Geohipster? 

My most reliable customers are not going to be here long. The older folks who rely on paper maps are giving way to digital natives who also like paper maps but for very different reasons. I’m trying to keep my older customers while pivoting to attract the next generation. So far as I can tell, they’re less likely to buy them, less likely to use them for directions, but they’re far more interested in the concept, the ideas and design and they love a space like ours that still manages to exist in 2024. It’s a rare (stupid) thing that I’m doing, after all. Paper maps are novelties in a screen age and I really think that represents a completely different understanding of cartography where the medium is essential to understanding the user experience. Making a webmap is different from making an 8-fold gas station road map which is different from something printed on Tyvek which is different than a book or a piece of poster paper in a frame. I’m still feeling out the market and I’ve been very cautious about my online presence as I’ve been focusing on the physical location and the local market.

I don’t know. There’s a lot I’m learning. A lot of assumptions I had that turned out to not be true. A lot of ideas I haven’t tried out yet. This is the time where I’m struggling to test this model and see if it has legs. I’m working through a moment of truth. If you think this project is worth doing, send me a note. Give me your ideas, your critiques, your well wishes. I want to take you all with me.






3 responses to “Paper maps are novelties in a screen age”

  1. P J Evans Avatar
    P J Evans

    There was a map store in downtown L.A., but it disappeared long ago. I miss it – that’s where I went for maps for both work and fun. (Try getting roadmaps of the British Isles some time.) I also miss paper USGS quads.

  2. Félix LT Avatar
    Félix LT

    Thank you, loved this interview! I’ve been in GIS for 10 years now and haven’t done much cartography – only very basic stuff. I can manage, transform and present geospatial data for professional purposes. But creating an art piece of a map is quite a challenge, especially with the level of details that those old paper maps contains. After reading this, I’m really motivated to practice this craft though!

  3. […] saw this as a unique opportunity to venture into the world of contemporary cartography. In a recent interview with GeoHipster’s Randal Hale, Andrew discussed his vision for the Map Center and the challenges of selling paper maps in […]

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