KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- In hindsight, Patrick Carroll thinks a city bus crashing through the back wall of his downtown store in 2004 probably saved his century-old Gallup Map Co. from extinction.
Not because there was a big payout -- the driver of the pickup that ran a light and smacked the bus into the squat brick building at 1733 Main St. in Kansas City, Mo., was underinsured.
But because the caved-in back wall exposed the building to robbers and rain, Mr. Carroll had to clear the attic. Among the cargo trundled to off-site storage were several dusty boxes full of 4-foot-long sealed cardboard tubes that had not been opened since his parents bought the company in 1968.
"I had no idea what was in them," Patricia Carroll, Mr. Carroll's mother, says.
Masons rebuilt the wall, and nine months later the boxes came back from storage. On slow days, Mr. Carroll began unsealing the tubes and rolling their fragile contents out on a large work table.
Over time he discovered 140 large-scale, hand-drawn, ink-on-linen maps created from the 1900s through the 1940s. County property ownership maps, oil and gas maps, transcontinental highway maps, even a map of long-gone moving-picture theaters in the city -- dozens of them -- with exotic names such as "Isis" and "Bagdad" and a key code for "colored" venues.
Though Mr. Carroll didn't realize it then, those artifacts would save the company's future three years later when the one-two punch of GPS and the construction decline decimated demand for its main product, the Gallup Kansas City Street Atlas, which dates back to 1919.
"I found myself wondering what I would be doing in three or four years," he says.
He had about given up on the idea of finding buyers for the antique maps when he broke the seal on one of the last tubes. As he unrolled the scrolled linen from left to right, a vintage, artistic rendering of Lake of the Ozarks unfurled in front of him, from west to east, Warsaw to Osage Beach.
Ever since Mr. Carroll had started working at the store full time in 1986, groups of ladies had come in from time to time asking if he had a map of Lake of the Ozarks. Mr. Carroll would show them a geographic survey map in the same utilitarian style and pastel colors of modern highway maps.
"They would leave, leave, leave, leave. For decades I had been watching that business walk out the door," he says.
Now he realized opportunity lay not in finding a buyer for the original map but in reproducing it.
Serendipitously, digital technology had lowered the price of printing, and a local company, Ridgway's (now Western Blueprint), had just bought a big scanner.
Mr. Carroll says such vintage maps could catch on with people who want a scenic route, rather than the most expeditious one charted by GPS products.
A new company called Kappa Map Group, headquartered in Blue Bell, Pa., has snapped up longstanding but struggling print map companies from around the country, including Hagstrom Map, a New York company founded in 1816, ADC, Universal Map, American Map and Mapsco. Kappa is now the nation's largest printer of paper maps.
DeLorme of Yarmouth, Maine, has gone in a different direction, adding GPS products while continuing to sell its popular Atlas & Gazetteer book maps for all states.
Mr. Carroll says GPS won't be part of his future business because he can't afford the investment. But he is not bitter about the technology that sent his industry into a tailspin.
"I'm not insensitive to the fact that this is a good product," he says, tossing his smartphone in the air and catching it in his hand. "When I go to Ireland this summer, I'll take this with me. But I'll also take a paper map. I want to spread it out to plan my days."
First Published March 11, 2012 5:00 AM