Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

But where are all the sign makers?

Something was missing when David Salvato opened his sandwich shop on Delmar Boulevard nearly four years ago.

"People would badger me about it: 'If you want to be successful, you need a neon sign in the window,'" Salvato recalls. The idea of electrifying what was supposed to be a European-style bistro was anathema. "I didn't want that modern look," Salvato says. "I wanted to stay in the old world."

The past arrived in the person of Bill Christman, a customer who lives about a mile away. Like so many others, Christman told Salvato to get a sign. "I was a real skeptic about it, to be honest," Salvato admits. "I said,'Let's go to a sign shop and have them pump me out something on a computer.'" Christman took that as a challenge.

Jennifer Silverberg
Last vestiges of the old school: Bambino shows off his handiwork on display at Bapharoh's car wash.
Jennifer Silverberg
Last vestiges of the old school: Bambino shows off his handiwork on display at Bapharoh's car wash.

"He said, 'I'm going to show you what a real sign can do,'" Salvato says.

A couple of weeks later, Christman walked in with a sidewalk sign shaped like a sandwich and unlike anything else on the Loop. The larger-than-life bread was made of Styrofoam and hand-painted with a globe and the words "Best Sandwich in the World."

Salvato admits that he didn't know what to think.

"When he brought it here, I said, 'Isn't that a little bold?'" he recalls. "It's something I never would have thought of. I said, 'What am I going to do now?' He said, 'See ya.'"

Today, Salvato says the sign that Christman fashioned from a cast-off prop from a parade float has proved the best thing that's happened to his shop. "My business doubled, and it's all because of that sign," Salvato says. "That's our signature. It's become my identity. People don't even know the name of the place. They say, 'You're the place with the sandwich out front.'"

After being stolen three times -- acting on an anonymous tip, Salvato once found it in an alley behind a nearby real-estate office -- the original is gone. It took Christman nine months to fashion a replacement -- "It had to be perfect before he would give it to me," Salvato says. Installed two months ago, the new wooden sandwich is anchored by 500 pounds of concrete and surrounded by love. "That's the most precious thing to me now -- that sign," Salvato says. "Every morning, the first thing I do is check to make sure it's still there."

Assuming thieves leave it alone, the sign will only get better as the paints fade. Salvato compares it to a copper roof that corrodes into a stately green. "To me, twenty years from now, even if I'm not here, people will say, 'Remember that sign shaped like a sandwich?'" he says. "It has personality in people's minds." Pointing toward his window, he adds, "This doesn't."

The window sign in Salvato's shop is nice enough: "Salvato's Café," it reads in white letters made of vinyl. Each letter is computer-perfect and guaranteed not to fade. And that's the problem, say devotees of old-style signs and the vanishing craftsmen who made them. Back in the day, it took years to learn the trade, and some would-be sign makers never could get the hang of it. Sharp eyes could tell who had painted which signs because every one was different. No longer.

Modern signs are designed on computers that produce every size and shape of letter imaginable. Ingram Publishing, one of several companies that sells sign-making software, offers "genuine hand-painted fonts on CD-ROM." Anyone with a computer and a vinyl cutter can make a sign these days, usually in a matter of minutes. Of the nearly 300 sign companies listed in the St. Louis yellow pages, only three advertisements mention hand lettering.

But the craft dies hard in St. Louis.

The beginning of the end came in September 1982 with the introduction of Signmaker III, the first computerized sign-making equipment that could do it all, from onscreen design to cutting letters from vinyl that could be stuck to virtually any surface. Overnight, anyone, regardless of artistic ability, could become a sign maker. And thousands did.

"Before, it was difficult to make signs if you couldn't paint," says Tod Swormstedt, president of the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati that is scheduled to open to the public next year. "What has happened is that anybody thinks they can enter the sign business." But punching letters on a keyboard after reading an instruction book is different than learning the craft the old-fashioned way. "The design of the sign is as important as anything," Swormstedt says. "The white space in a sign is as important as the black space. The tendency of people who don't know anything about the proper elements of design is to cram as much as possible into the space. Also, people could jump into the sign business and fabricate signs, but they couldn't install them correctly."

Christman, who closed his full-time sign shop in the late 1980s, readily remembers early ads in trade journals for the technology that changed his life: Imagine an employee who will work for you all night for the cost of electricity, who never calls in sick, who never takes time off for a relative's funeral.

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