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May 21, 2022

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Arnold Map Service in Vancouver presses on despite fading demand

Phil Arnold Jr. continues operating map-making business his father founded in their Vancouver home in 1950

By , Columbian Innovation Editor
Published:
4 Photos
Phil Arnold Jr. looks over a selection of maps at his west Vancouver shop. He inherited his father's map-making business, but it's seeing tough times with tech competition.
Phil Arnold Jr. looks over a selection of maps at his west Vancouver shop. He inherited his father's map-making business, but it's seeing tough times with tech competition. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

They were rolled, folded, stacked on shelves, and a few were splayed on a large drafting table in the middle of the room.

Thousands of yellowing maps surrounded Phil Arnold Jr., 77, as he sat holding a rusted wood-and-brass spooled measuring tape used by his father, a local cartographer, over 50 years ago.

“I suppose this is an antique now,” he said, thumbing the marks on the metal tape. “All the numbers are worn off. But I think you can see them.”

Arnold owns and operates Arnold Map Service in an old, brown house with yellow trim at 119 W. 24th St., where his father and mother lived, where he grew up and where the business has been since 1950.

His father, Phil Arnold Sr., founded the business in 1950. It’s been almost eight years since he died, and Phil Jr. is keeping the business going. In the digital age of GPS and smartphones, the Arnold Map Service business is wilting; its city maps are outdated.

Arnold Jr., who doesn’t draw maps, and isn’t a cartographer, wants to keep the business going — but it takes him a while to ponder why. Before he can put it into words, he stops and gazes around the room where his father worked all those years, drawing and labeling the streets of Vancouver.

From childhood

The tool Arnold held was the same one he remembers from childhood, when his dad would drive him to spots around Vancouver. They’d park and walk out into the streets with the measuring tape, Phil Jr. remembers, to measure the distance of property lines for newer versions of Clark County maps.

He recalls his dad saying, “‘Take this end and out it here, and I’ll need to measure what I need to measure.'”

“He had something every week that he might have to go out and check,” Phil Jr. said.

He and his siblings would take turns holding one end of the measuring tape, but as a 5-year-old boy, Phil Jr. didn’t know what he was doing.

“There was a formula for translating tape measurement to what actually went on the map,” he said. “I still don’t know what that is.”

None of the third or fourth generation of Arnolds hold any interest in working at the map-making business. His three adult children are pursuing other careers.

But Phil Jr., day after day, keeps the business open. He doesn’t make much money, and he doesn’t expect to, he said.

History

One day in the late 1940s, Phil Arnold Sr. decided to make a map of Vancouver.

He worked as an engineer for the city of Vancouver, and one day a man approached him looking for information because he wanted to make a map of the city to sell. It’s not clear if Arnold Sr. helped the man, but soon after he decided he would make his own map, according to a 2005 article in The Columbian.

So in 1950, Arnold Sr. published his first map, a “crude” map, he said in 2005, which is now framed and hangs on the wall of the Arnold Map Services.

“This is the first map that Dad came up with,” Phil Jr. said, pointing to it. “We sold it for a dollar. Now, those are 5 and a half bucks.”

The brown house is Phil Jr.’s childhood home. He grew up in Vancouver and attended Hough Elementary School, Shumway Junior High and Fort Vancouver High School.

But cartography didn’t appeal to Phil Jr.

“I wasn’t really excited about it back then,” he said. “It didn’t mean much to me.”

He helped with the business from time to time while he got older. He spent two years at Clark College and then was accepted to the University of Washington to major in business.

“I got up there and my grades weren’t really good,” he said. “I almost finished a quarter. I backed off on that.”

After college, Phil Jr. worked as a baggage handler for the airlines and later moved to Longview and helped his dad with the business, selling maps mostly. But in his adulthood, a fire for cartography still hadn’t sparked in him.

“It’s not that I had anything against it, but I didn’t have any passion like Dad did. That was his baby. That was the thing he did. That’s who he was.”

The shtick

Arnold Sr.’s maps had an unusual gimmick: He would write street names, bearing the names of his family members, on unnamed streets.

As someone who prided himself on accuracy, it might sound odd, or a joke, but Arnold’s reason was to deter plagiarism and copy-cats. If Arnold saw competitors’ maps with the street names that he invented, he knew that they were copied. It worked once, and Arnold told The Columbian he alerted the FBI, but it became a low priority, he said in 2005.

Over time, the street names actually became the real names of the streets; Phil Arnold Way is an actual street that spans a block between Ester Street and Columbia Way, south of City Hall.

Phil Arnold Sr. continued working into his 90s, and he earned a proclamation from former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire as “most likely the oldest working cartographer in the world.”

He died in 2012 at the age of 96.

Within a year, the Clark County Historical Museum held a Mapping Clark County exhibit that featured Arnold’s work and his tools.

Bradley Richardson, executive director of the museum, was just beginning his career at the museum in 2012, but he remembers seeing objects and the explanations behind the tools.

“It calls back to that artisan nature of business that was so prevalent in the county,” he said. “When we did the exhibit and had his maps for display, the public got excited about that. We were in awe of what he was able to do.”

Richardson said that he is considering reaching out to the business for future exhibits, including ones on the history of the county, and another of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s legacy.

“If we ever were to do anything with the geography of the county, his maps would be an ideal illustration. His maps would be something we’d look to showcase.”

Richardson said that Phil Sr. “was just beloved in the community.”

Meanwhile, Phil Jr. took over the operations of the business.

What’s next for the business?

Arnold Map Service is shrinking as technology advances, and it’s seeing fewer customers. But since Arnold’s family owns the building, the operating costs are low. Phil Jr. said the company is slightly profitable but added, “you could never live on it. Most of the time it’s a labor of love.”

He said he “doesn’t think in those terms” when he thinks about how many customers he sees in the map shop. But the business has settled into a place mostly for hunters, anglers and hikers to get wilderness maps for their trips — something Phil Jr. likes to discuss.

“When a customer walks in here, I don’t look at them with the purpose of trying to sell them a bunch of stuff,” he said. “I know they’re here for something.”

Phil Jr. also doesn’t advertise; business all comes from word of mouth, he said.

He gives credit for the company’s survival to his wife, Kathy Arnold, who has propped up the business with her bookkeeping work, he said.

Recently, a customer came in, looking around the shop that holds the outdated technology: the paper, ink, tools made of metal and wood. The customer told Phil Jr. that he’s “got a huge responsibility to keep this.”

“I think about that,” he said.

But looking into the future, Phil Jr. doesn’t have any plans for Arnold Map Service.

“I don’t know what the end would look like,” he said. “I’ve thought about selling it.”

So why does Phil Jr. keep running Arnold Map Service? He said it’s something he grew up with. It’s a business that his father put his life into.

“I knew how important it was to him,” he said. “That’s one reason why I’m running it today. I get discouraged from time to time, but when you have customers come in and look at you and say, ‘I’m sure glad you’re here,’ I think it’s sincere.

“When they do that, it’s just a spark,” he said. “There is hope.”

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