Anchorage's USGS Map Store falls victim to the digital age

Craig Medred
Fran Durner

Less than two weeks after Kenneth Baitsholts lost his job for breaking a gag order about the proposed closure of the U.S. Geological Survey's Map Store in Anchorage, the federal agency has announced the iconic business on the campus of Alaska Pacific University will close at the end of October.

Baitsholts thinks this a good thing. Not necessarily the loss of his job, but the public notification at last of the impending closure of what used to be an Anchorage institution where Alaskans would go to roam among the tall stacks of maps or try to track down aerial photographs of more remote corners of the 49th state.

It was a disagreement over what should be said about the fate of the store -- once visited by almost every outdoorsperson in the city -- that caused Baitsholts to part ways with Alaska Geographic, the nonprofit entity the USGS contracted to run the store.

"I lost my job because I was fairly vocal about telling customers the store was going to close," said Baitsholts, a store employee for seven years and the manager for the last five and a half. "I'm really driven by wanting to support the customers. There have been people coming there for 25 years."

Many of Baitsholts' customers come, he said, from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, about 40 minutes north of the state's largest city. There is now nowhere to buy maps in Wasilla or Palmer, the two biggest communities in the Mat-Su. Or, in Anchorage for that matter, other than the Map Store -- until Oct. 31.

REI in Midtown used to have machines on which a customer could call up a map on a video screen and then print it out, but the machines years ago fell victim to the digital age. With maps now readily available on GPS receivers and smartphones, many people have stopped buying traditional maps and gone electronic.

As the USGS noted in a Friday press release revealing the fate of the Map Store, "most USGS products (including historic publications) are now online and can be downloaded for free."

Technology is changing the way people find their way in the wilds of Alaska, and as a result, Alaskans don't flock to the building on the old APU campus where almost everyone used to go to get a map before heading deep into the wild.

All the new technology is fine for people with electronic gadgets, Baitsholts said in interview last week, but some people still like to use real maps in the field, and others buy maps just because they like to look at them or use them to decorate.

The problem for a business these days, be it for-profit or nonprofit, comes in selling enough maps to stay financially afloat.

"The heads of Alaska Geographic have been saying the Map Store is losing money," Baitsholts said. "They're not losing money."

They also are not paying rent, received a lot of their inventory for nothing, and have been benefiting from free government labor.

When Congress made the decision to privatize the map sale business years ago, Baitsholts said, Alaska Geographic was "given all the maps. They were given the space rent-free. For much of the time, even USGS employees provided much of the labor. ... About three years ago, USGS basically forbade their employees from doing the cash register," but USGS employees continued to help out where they could.

This arrangement might have allowed the Map Store to survive forever, but now the USGS wants the space in the building at APU in order to consolidate its Alaska operations.

"The move is part of a larger consolidation plan motivated by the Presidential directive to reduce government space," the press release said. "There is not a plan to reduce staff, and the USGS will continue to maintain all operations currently housed in Anchorage."

The need to pay the cost of rent for a storefront significantly changes the economics of the Map Store. Even Baitsholts concedes a Map Store saddled with overhead would struggle.

"It wouldn't be a huge moneymaker," he said, "but even if it's a break-even proposition, Alaska Geographic is a nonprofit association."

Sarah Warnock, the association's spokesperson on the issue, said the nonprofit would have kept the Map Store in operation elsewhere if it seemed likely the store could be made to break even. But when Geographic officials ran the numbers, they just couldn't make income match cost.

"The costs were prohibitive," she said.

The Map Store would have been a drain on Alaska Geographic's many other businesses. The nonprofit operates more than 30 retail stores in visitor centers and at other locations across the state. Income from the stores supports the organization's natural-history education program.

"The education department is really good," Baitsholts said.

But he questions whether the marriage between the USGS, a public service agency, and Alaska Geographic, a nonprofit geared to making money, is best for Alaskans.

"Their focus is really on tourists," he said. "Eighty percent of their customers are nonresidents."

He can understand Alaska Geographic getting out of the map business. He only questions whether more couldn't be done to ensure someone can still get an official USGS map in Alaska's largest city.

When the USGS decided to pull its map store out of Fairbanks about a decade ago, he said, there was a public hearing, a big public outcry and a USGS decision to give its maps to the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to set up a map center there.

He wonders if a similar arrangement couldn't be worked out with the University of Alaska Anchorage or APU to take over map distribution in Anchorage, where Geographic has said it will continue to sell a selection of maps -- only the bestsellers -- at its new retail store at 241 N. C St. in Anchorage's Ship Creek district.

Anyone who wants or needs a non-bestseller will have to order it the old-fashioned way and wait for delivery via the U.S. Postal Service.

Or, as the joint press release from Alaska Geographic and the USGS points out, drive to Fairbanks, where "the University of Alaska Fairbanks carries all of the USGS topographic and state maps covering Alaska."

As for Baitsholts, he noted in an email that "I am not at all bitter about losing my job, nor do I want it back. Given the circumstances, I can certainly understand why Alaska Geographic felt that it was no longer in their interest to have me manage the Map Store. ... but there are alternatives" to taking Anchorage off the map for maps.