Amid the auto repair shops and weathered storefronts that line Long Beach Boulevard in Lynwood, there stands a small green and white house containing every place in the world.
“Through This Door Pass the Smartest People on Earth--Map Users,” reads a sign at the entrance of the Pacific Coast Map Service.
Inside, 66-year-old Russel Joslin lords over a collection of 200,000 maps, with his hair combed back, glasses hanging around his neck and an ever-present unfiltered cigarette dangling from his lips. He has been in the map business since 1948, either selling or drawing them in Lynwood for 31 years.
“I love maps,” Joslin said, while standing in the dimly lit front room of his store. “I am a fanatic about it.
“Maps are the answer to everything you’ve got except lumbago,” he said. “No matter what you do, if you use a map you’ll either do it better or faster. If people knew the value of maps I would need 10 clerks and police outside talking care of the overflow.”
With that line Joslin let out a raspy laugh until interrupted by a high-pitched bell set off as the front door opened.
A young couple paused in the doorway, the woman coughing slightly as she encountered the shop’s acrid, smoke-filled atmosphere.
They were planning an ambitious motorcycle trip through Central America to Brazil, the couple explained, and needed a reliable road map covering all points south of the United States.
Joslin sliped on his glasses and quickly pulled out six maps. The couple studied them carefully, bought two and left satisfied that they had found what they had been searching for.
“I like to wait on people, wait for someone to ask for something a little different, and by God I’ve got it,” Joslin said, the wrinkles around his eyes deepening as he grined.
“I get the hard stuff,” he said. “When people want a map of southeast Bangkok, they go through the phone book until they come to me.
“These days a lot of people don’t want to go into Lynwood,” he said, noting that his shop and adjacent bungalow have been burglarized eight times over the past decade. But the customers keep coming.
Born in Whittier and raised in San Francisco, Joslin grew up wanting to be a movie star. But when World War II came, he was drafted into the Navy and spent four years on an aircraft carrier. When he returned to civilian life, he became a taxi driver in Los Angeles. One day in 1948 it occurred to him that everyone should have one of those street guide map books he used as a cabbie.
“So I went down and bought a dozen of em'--they sold for $1 in those days--and took em’ on a Wednesday night down to Wilmington,” he recalled.
“I went into bars and liquor stores and whatever and sold them all in about three hours. So the next day I went back and bought two dozen and sold those.”
Sold Maps on Streets
Through the 1950s Joslin sold maps door to door.
“I did nothing but walk up and down the street selling maps,” he recalled. “I covered almost every main street in Southern California.
“This routine gives you insight into other things; you meet every kind of person you can imagine. It taught me how to be tolerant.”
By 1960, Joslin had married and set up shop on Long Beach Boulevard.
He and his wife, Kay, began selling maps from the front room of the house. But their inventory took up more and more space, so they eventually retreated to their back-yard bungalow.
“I always knew we were building up a selection but I didn’t realize it would be to this extent,” he said.
Joslin’s house of maps is his most lasting legacy. He has no brothers or sisters, and he and his wife did not have children. She died of cancer in 1970.
A tour of Joslin’s house begins behind the counter and through the “foreign countries hallway.” Like the rest of the shop, every inch of wall space is covered with maps, map racks or cabinets containing maps.
“That’s Asia on the left and Europe on the right,” he said. There is a “United States room” and a “California room.”
Next stop is the attic, which is crowded with rolls of paper each a foot thick, containing copies of the 150 maps that Joslin has drawn and published as a self-taught cartographer. It also holds his personal collection of area street guides dating back to 1913.
“I drew my first map around 1960,” he said. Until recently, he devoted 50 to 60 hours a week to cartography.
Using government survey information, Joslin creates his maps in a small studio in the rear of his shop. It takes him about six months to draw something new and about a month to update an existing map.
Likes Detail Work
“I love to get into the details of things, that’s why I like map making,” he said.
“I guess a lot of people would go nuts doing that. But when it comes out just right, I’m highly elated.
“I am the father and the lithographer is the mother. I have no children nor do I expect any, so these are my babies.”
When he has to take a break from all the detail work, Joslin goes to a favorite North Long Beach bar, usually on Wednesday nights. He steps up to the microphone and belts out several of the Al Jolson tunes he loves.
“It is one of the little highlights of my life,” he said with a mischievous grin, “like smoking and women.”
Joslin has no plan to give up another highlight of his life--maps.
“That’s like asking a kid, ‘How would you like to sell your pony?’ ” he said. “People ask me if I am going to retire, but I’m having too good a time.”