Monday, May 9, 2011

American Pickers We're Not

[Below is my article from the May issue of Signs of the Times.]

The romantic notion of Tod cruising for signs is just that.

I’m often asked, “How do you get all these signs?” The visitor usually begins to answer his own question: “Do you buy them on eBay? Do people call you and say they have a sign for you? Are they donated? Do you drive around like American Pickers?” All apply -- except the American Picker method. The idea that I drive around the country looking for signs is just a romantic notion. The museum doesn’t have the money, or the time.
Increasingly, people call the museum to tell us about a sign for sale or set for the wrecking ball. Or, it may be a sign from the caller’s family business that has succumbed to the economy. Whatever the case, I’ve learned the more I chase a sign, the less likely I’ll succeed. The best signs sometimes fall in our lap. I don’t know if I can attribute it to clean living . . . maybe just good vibes.
Two signs acquired -- ostensibly for our “Signs of Cincinnati” wall in the new home -- provide great examples. The first sign, from Big Top, a long-closed, independent burger joint in Mason, OH, is an example of a chase. The second example, from Suder’s Art Store, is a classic local sign that I had no inkling would ever come down. But, now it sits in the museum’s restoration shop.
The “Big Top” saga traces back six years ago, when I first began receiving phone calls and e-mails about this cool sign on a boarded-up building. To find the owner, I called the city of Mason and contacted other area businesses. I got the owner’s name, and was told he owned a number of pizza establishments. I called several of them asking to speak to the owner. He was never there. Employees offered to take messages, but wouldn’t give out his number. Never a return call.
Late last year, the property was listed for sale. The realtor facilitated talking to the owner in person. After six years, and with help from our friends at United-Maier Signs, we acquired the sign. But, time had taken its toll. In 2005, the paint on the sheetmetal was still in relatively good shape. But, six years later, almost no paint remained. Typically, we don’t like to repaint signs we acquire.
Even worse, a huge crease marred the bottom cabinet of the three-tiered sign. A truck had probably backed into the hapless icon. Its entire structural integrity had been compromised. United-Maier removed it in one piece, and the sign sits in their shop, awaiting its future.
The “Suder’s” sign proceeded differently. It had hung since the late 1930s on this well-known family business inThe romantic notion of Tod cruising for signs is just that. the Over-the-Rhine area of Cincinnati. Once a thriving community, Over-the-Rhine had suffered urban decay. Somehow, the business persevered in supplying lettering enamel, brushes and goldleaf.
In the last five years, the area experienced redevelopment, and the neighborhood shows signs of new vitality. But, the sign continued to experience the typical decay of a sheetmetal, neon sign. The owners decided to remove it -- unbeknownst to the museum.
Dauber (aka Jim Farr), a well-known auto pinstriper and gilder, told us about the sign’s removal. He said customers told the Suder family to donate the sign to the museum.
They agreed. To sweeten the deal, Dauber offered to donate a new sign for the business, which he’ll design in the style of the original.
The sign awaits neon repair and rewiring. The chipped paint and rusted sheetmetal -- the sign’s earned patina -- will remain. The neon will be replaced and glow once again. An era of the sign’s history ends, but its future is secure.

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