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The Thomas Guide is back. Why seemingly obsolete map books will publish for 2022

The cover of the new Thomas Guide for Los Angeles and Orange counties shows sunlit palm trees with downtown L.A. beyond.
The 2022 edition of the Thomas Guide for Los Angeles and Orange counties has a target release date of Dec. 15.
(The Thomas Guide)

For decades a Thomas Guide was a driver’s well-thumbed tool for survival in the freeway-heavy, ever-expanding sprawl of Southern California — as essential as a spare tire, at least until traffic apps made paper books seemingly obsolete.

Younger Angelenos may never have heard of them, but the Thomas Guide lives on. The 2022 editions — the first in three years — are due out next week.

Guidebooks and fold-out maps were first published by three Thomas brothers in Oakland in 1915. Their first city map, Los Angeles, came in 1946. San Francisco and other California cities followed a few years later, and the operation expanded to cover regions across America and Canada.

L.A.'s Central Library has the only known complete collection of the rectangular, ring-bound guides. Recently retired map librarian Glen Creason recalled how the library offered free photocopies of the Hollywood and downtown pages because they were so often torn out by cheap (or maybe lost) motorists.

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Then came GPS and traffic-beating apps.

Despite its huge database, the Thomas Guide stumbled in the digital age, and owner Rand McNally replaced cartographers and cut costs. The guides seemed destined to be lost to nostalgia, yet they didn’t disappear.

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From his office outside San Antonio, Larry Thomas, now the majority owner of the Thomas Maps brand, said that at one time the Thomas Guide had seven or eight distributors in California alone and printed a Spanish-language edition too.

Only the L.A./Orange County and San Diego/Imperial counties guides are still produced today, but Thomas is expecting good sales.

“Private car owners are a very small part of our business now,” he said. “But California state legislation says that every police and fire vehicle must have a Thomas Guide on board. Fire roads often aren’t on GPS, and ambulances can’t get lost, as every second could be life-saving. They often buy laminated copies too, as they get so beat up.”

That accounts for 1,000 to 1,500 sales a year. As a distributor for Rand McNally and other map and atlas brands, Thomas also supplies custom maps with “extreme detail” for transit agencies, hospitals, animal control and others.

Thomas said he was “in the right time and place” to start his career as a distributor about 30 years ago — and that his last name was a lucky factor.

“I got the blessings of the original owners, the Thomas brothers, who said that my last name wouldn’t infringe their copyright,” he said, “so I could legitimately call myself Thomas Maps.”

Angelenos complain about how a glitch in their traffic app made them late. Could the Thomas Guide be poised for a vinyl-like revival?

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