San Francisco

Unique San Francisco Shop Maps Its Way Through History

Chances are the next time you take a trip into unknown terrain, you’ll whip out your phone and consult the digital mapping wizard for a preferred route. Jimmy Schein would probably more likely go old school — unfold a paper map to gander at the possibilities.

“I wouldn’t use a GPS,” Schein said, “because they tell you to take a right hand turn down the wrong one way street.”

It’s fitting that Schein’s antique map store Schein & Schein sits on one-way Grant street in San Francisco’s North Beach, piled to the hilt with maps dating back to the 1500s. Schein doesn’t really need a gadget to tell him where to go — he’s a walking encyclopedia of maps.

“We sell the maps,” Schein said in his shop, which looks like it was plucked from 1848, “the history tends to come with it.”

Even in an age when consumers line-up for the latest iPhone thingy, Schein’s shop is unabashedly so last-century. As Schein avidly points out, each map has its own story.

There are maps that pinpoint every buried ship in San Francisco. An early 1900s map of San Francisco which shows a man riding a camel in what was then a sand dune covered Sunset District. Another charts the city’s water supplies circa 1910.

Schein held up a 1939 map based on a Richard Guggenheim book called “Where to sin in San Francisco.” Small characters of scantily clad ladies and men in top hats marked the spots in the city where a good time could be had.

“A guide to the the three Ds,” Schein read from the map’s index, “dining, drinking and dancing.”

Schein can chart his fascination with maps back to his childhood. There were maps on the walls of his home. And when he ditched school, it was to look at maps.

“Used to skip school and go to museums that had maps,” Schein said.

Schein worked for years in the rock and roll industry, driving trucks for bands like Santana before returning to his first love of maps.

His store, he said, is basically a map collection gone bad. “Gone wild,” corrected his wife Marti Schein, the second Schein in Schein & Schein.

“Jimmy has his little saying of ‘no bad maps,’” Mari said. “‘we like them all.’”

Schein slid opened an antique wooden drawer revealing a thick stack of maps. He picked out a hand colored one that read “A Celebration of the Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, with characters marking illustrious spots and events around the city’s Chinatown. Another map revealed a guide to the Renaissance Faire in Marin County.

“Here’s a great San Francisco map,” he said holding up another one. “Very contemporary for us — this is 1976.”

Schein admits he has troubling turning down maps that come his way. As a result, his shop looks as if it was wallpapered by a map aficionado — they hang from the ceiling, they sit in rolls in the rafters.

Among Schein’s devoted customers is San Francisco City and County Surveyor Bruce Storrs who is a collector of vintage maps, and often consults them for surveying work around the city.

“There’s valuable information for boundary resolution,” Storrs said, giving a tour of his department’s own collection of vintage city maps, some dating back to the city’s infancy in 1847.

Storrs said on occasion Schein will visit the department to provide information about vintage maps — including a 45 minute presentation on one early city map in the department’s collection. To some such a presentation might be akin to torture. For the surveyors it is a slice of pure heaven.

“That stuff, we go crazy, “Storrs said, “it’s like throwing blood in the water with sharks around.”

Schein said even though his antiquated wares might fly in the face of the tech obsessive culture, his clientele increasingly include younger people.

"For people under their thirties,” Schein said, “the realities of a shop that has all this printed material that was worthy of being printed is somewhat novel and pretty interesting.”

Schein has also printed some of his own maps — modern versions of hard-to-find relics. He said maps are ultimately based on individual perspective — interpreted through the eyes and hand of the map maker. Some of his favorite maps are ones where that perspective was slightly askew.

“We assume the map is factual when in fact, some of the most interesting maps are maps that are wrong,” Schein said. “California used to be documented as an island.”

But nary to belief, Schein isn’t strictly anti-technology. His store makes use of computers and he admits to using his phone occasionally to navigate unknown destinations. In fact, he said in their own way, smart phones are mapping devices in and of themselves.

“We’re mapping more now than we did in my grandparent’s time,” Schein reasoned, “because ultimately just navigating your phone is mapping.”

Schein’s love for maps goes deeper than the printed page — he can cite the backstory of each marking — the history behind the culture when the maps were created.

It was almost as if each map itself was a living, breathing version of Jimmy Schein - filled with tales and stories few others could unfold.

“The real thing bears age,” Schein said of his collection. “It bears scars of its travel in life.”

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