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A Treasure of Maps in Tennessee - 2002-06-16


Antiquarian bookstores are the kind of exotic treasure you expect to find in some quiet corner of a bustling metropolis like New York City, or perhaps London. But such a store is thriving in a small farming community north of Memphis on the eastern shore of the Mississippi River. Mike Osborne takes us to Hudson's Antiquarian Books, Maps, Prints and Globes in tiny Halls, Tennessee.

Halls is the kind of southern farm town where the local cotton gin looms over the two blocks that comprise the downtown. A village of just 2,500, Halls is surrounded by seemingly endless fields of cotton. Just down from Halls' lone traffic light and across the street from the town bank sits the former post office. A small sign mounted beside the door provides the only clue to what you will find inside; one of the nation's largest collections of early American maps and antique globes.

Inside, owner/collector Murray Hudson presides over geographical chaos. Atlases, wall maps of every description and globes of all sizes are stacked floor to ceiling. It's taken nearly forty years for Mr. Hudson to amass this collection. He spent a semester at Oxford University in 1964 and fell in love with the map collection at the venerable Oxford antiquarian bookstore called Saunders on High. "I went into the shop just before I was coming back to the States and so I bought about fifty maps. And one of these maps was half of a rare English map," he says. "I paid two pounds for it, which was by far the most expensive one. Less than ten years later I was offered the price of a round trip ticket to England for that one map."

Returning home and completing his degree, Mr. Hudson served for a time as a professor of English literature. After a brief turn as a stockbroker, he returned home to west Tennessee to manage the family farm. Through the years he continued to collect maps and globes.

Eventually the hobby became a more profitable enterprise than the farming. "Where there are two people with great wealth wanting the same item there is no telling what can happen, but I've had atlases go for $20,000," he says. "Certain maps of Texas are worth $75,000."

And there may be more $75,000 maps hiding on the shelves. Mr. Hudson isn't really sure. His staff have been cataloging the collection for years, but the sheer volume of material, and the fact that pieces are constantly being bought and sold, frustrate their efforts. "We are cataloging almost number 25,000 as far as maps, which is not nearly what we have in piles and boxes. Probably have ten thousand more that are waiting to be cataloged, but it's very time consuming," he says. "I'm not sure the exact number of books now, but let's say 3,000 to 5,000."

In addition there are roughly 1,100 globes in the collection, so many that most are now stored in a barn outside town. The largest is a German globe measuring a meter in diameter. The smallest would fit easily in a pocket. One of the most unusual is a radio set built to look like a globe. You tune the radio by spinning the world from side to side.

"The globe right next to you is an 1807 map on an original Chippendale stand from England," he says. "The first globe done by an American, James Wilson, one of his 13 inch globes from 1831 and I think that sold for $16,000."

But wall maps are Mr. Hudson's specialty. He's especially fond of pieces detailing America's westward expansion. For example, one of his oldest charts shows Mexico in possession of most of North America.

Mr. Hudson was lucky to have started his collection at a time when few people were interested in maps and globes. He's now profiting from a wave of new passion for all things geographical, interest driven by varied motives. "By far the majority of my collectors are men and men are territorial. They want to see a map of their state, particularly Texans, and they particularly want to see a map of their state when it was a separate country," he says. "Then there are more and more women collectors who are interested as much for aesthetics as much as they are the information. And a lot of the men are interested in it because some of these maps and some of the globes are just really, extraordinarily beautiful."

Global communications have greatly expanded the reach of Mr. Hudson's business. He now has customers worldwide. Collectors from Europe and Asia routinely show up in Halls to look over his offerings in person, but half of all sales now come by way of the company website.

After nearly four decades of collecting for himself and for others, Murray Hudson says he still enjoys his hobby turned occupation. "One of the real attractions, particularly early on and still is, is the hunt, looking for the treasure. And I had people constantly coming up to me at book and map shows saying, 'You got any treasure maps?' (Laughs) So I finally wrote an article, I've got it right over here, called 'Treasure Maps' and I end by saying the map itself is the treasure. So, that's basically why I'm still hooked on them," he says.

If you want to begin a treasure hunt of your own you might visit Mercator's World, the online magazine for map collecting, at mercatormag.com, or take a virtual tour of Hudson's Antiquarian Books, Maps, Prints and Globes by browsing murrayhudson.com.

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