You won’t be able to stop in and pick up USGS topographical maps of every inch of the Arizona Strip anymore. Or select among a variety of light-up globes.
And you may have to find another go-to source for your Albanian flags.
Charles Smith is winding down retail operations this month at one of Tucson’s most unique and resilient stores, Tucson Map and Flag, 3239 N. First Ave.
The business’s ancestry dates back to the early 1950s, when Ruhl Flag was founded, later merging with a map store to become Tucson Map and Flag, Smith said.
For me, it is the end of a personal tradition. I’ve habitually visited Smith’s store each December, in the run-up to Christmas, and loved poking through the odds and ends in the store, or just staring at the hanging maps. And I told myself: I’ve got to come here more often or it’s going to close.
I didn’t, and it’s closing. But of course it isn’t just my fault.
Smith, 68, traces the demise to one obvious factor — the proliferation of the use of online maps — and one less obvious factor: the aging out of baby boomer business owners.
“The baby boomers are retiring. There’s no merchant class behind us,” he said.
In his case, many of the key suppliers of his business are baby boomers. Especially in a business like printed maps, with a declining demand, those suppliers don’t want to make a whole batch of new product without a guarantee they’ll recoup their investment soon, Smith said.
“Most maps are done by small businesses, and as a map ends its life and it comes time to reprint it, it costs $100,000 to $200,000 to reprint it,” he said. “If you’re 72 years of age, are you going to spend the $100,000 it takes to reprint a map or are you going to take that $100,000 and retire?”
These suppliers are choosing to retire. The big ones that really spelled the end for Tucson Map and Flag were when the Tucson road atlas stopped being updated in 2016, when North Star Mapping stopped producing its Tucson tourist map, and when the company making map tacks stopped making them, believe it or not.
The local road atlas, especially, was a staple of all kinds of businesses, including the Arizona Daily Star, which bought supplies of them annually. But delivery companies stopped buying them some years ago, which eventually made it uneconomical to print new editions. It’s part of a pattern, Smith said.
“It’s people my age or slightly older saying, ‘It’s not worth the hassle,’“ he said.
Smith is planning to remain in the business as a “concierge,” he said, obtaining maps individually for customers as they request them.
We spoke by phone Monday and again at the store Tuesday morning as customers drifted in. Some knew; others didn’t.
“Map of Vietnam?” one man asked Smith abruptly as he stopped in. “We’re out,” Smith replied.
Most have reacted with appreciation and sadness.
“I’ve shaken more hands in the last month than I have the entire time I was in the business,” Smith said.
That time, Smith said, began in 1989, when he moved from Texas to Tucson to attend graduate school in geography at the University of Arizona. Looking around town for a part-time job, he stumbled across Tucson Map and Flag, then owned by Joyce and Burt Miller. They hired him, he became manager, and when they were ready to retire in 1993, they made him a deal to buy the place.
“I bought the store with no money down, paying them $4,000 a year for 14 years,” he said.
The human touch carried on, among both customers and employees. William Henley worked at the store for 14 years, he told me Tuesday. That ended in April when Smith laid off the remaining staff as he started winding down the business.
“Working at Tucson Map and Flag was the greatest job ever. I had the greatest boss, who actually listened to you and actually cared whether or not you were OK,” Henley said.
Henley rattled off a few entertaining stories, such as the one in which Smith, who has a white beard, spontaneously donned a Santa cap to help a mother deal with an unruly child by warning the boy that Santa still hands out coal sometimes.
More recently, Henley said, people came in looking for a map of the flat Earth and were summarily chased out.
The customers I met Tuesday were map lovers like me, absorbed by the remaining, somewhat random offerings, now on sale as he clears the store out. I picked up a travel book and a map. Couldn’t help it.
Joseph Canales, 25, was the only younger customer I came across. He was buying two more wall maps for his office, one of Central America and one of the Phoenix area, bringing his total to eight. He’s bought them all at Tucson Map and Flag but only discovered the place a few months ago.
Smith pulled out topo maps of the Tortolita Mountains area for customer Priscilla Warren, who pored over them looking for certain canyons of archaeological interest.
She told me she doesn’t want to look at computerized maps. She wants to run her fingers over them.
“I’m going to miss this place. This is the awesomest store,” she said.
It was — still is till May 31 — and I’ll miss my annual excursions, but not the worry that soon it will close. Sadly, technology and generational change have finally made that happen.