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Curious City

The Painters Who Give Chicago's Grocery Signs The Human Touch

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Kathleen Rooney takes her walking seriously, and so does her friend Helenmary Sheridan. On those long walks crisscrossing the city of Chicago, they have seen a lot of signs, and they’re especially drawn to the ones in grocery store windows.

If you’ve lived in Chicago for any stretch of time, you’ve probably seen these signs, too. They have a distinct, old-fashioned look, maybe even hand-made. They hang in windows of stores like Stanley’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetables on Elston Avenue, Edgewater Produce on Clark Street, or La Casa del Pueblo on Blue Island Avenue. These brightly colored signs have big fat letters and numbers that beckon you inside to scoop up deals on juicy limes, sweet strawberries, or whatever’s on sale that week.

But Kathleen and Helenmary were less curious about the signs’ advertised deals than the signs themselves. So Kathleen, with some prodding from Helenmary, posed this question: I want to know who makes the produce market paint-on-paper signs. At groceries throughout the city, they're all the same lettering.

For Kathleen, it’s those deals and bright colors that draw her into the store, but it’s the human connection and handiwork on the signs that fascinate her. “I’m the kind of person who is attracted to something that seems like it was made by another person, and not just cranked out by a machine,” she says.

She’s got a point. Most big-name chain stores like Jewel and Mariano’s do use large-format, digitally printed signs to lure customers to their deals. And, it turns out, most of the signs Kathleen asked about are handmade, a fact that stands out in our age of digital printing (or practically digital everything, for that matter). Most of the smaller grocery stores hire outside painters to make their signs. But who are these painters? How do they learn the trade? And, does the tradition have a future?  

The painters

Kathleen and I visit the aptly named Southwest Signs. It sits just a block from Midway Airport on the Southwest Side of the city.  Planes fly above and cars stream past this W. 63rd Street storefront that is proudly pasted with bright paper signs advertising, you guessed it, paper signs.

The shop was opened in 1962 by a sign painter named Bob Petrizzo and a partner. It was started in a basement, like many sign shops in the city, and it’s been churning out the hand-painted signs ever since. From the minute you walk in the door, the shop’s long-time family feel is apparent. Today, Carol Kamba and her husband, Dan, run and own the place along with Carol’s brother Chuck Wilmarth and his wife, Wendy.

That makes it a great place to answer how the craft is carried on. Chuck and Dan both started out doing janitorial work for the shop, and later learned sign-painting from Petrizzo. Once they mastered the technique and brushwork, Petrizzo hired them as painters. Eventually the two couples decided to buy the shop in 1997, when Petrizzo decided to hang up his brush. Then, about, 20 years ago, Dan and Chuck did the same for Jayson Adelmann, the only other employee and sign painter in the shop today. Jayson had been working as a delivery guy for Southwest Signs. And Dan and Chuck asked him if he wanted to learn to paint.

This is how most of the shops are run: The trade — or, sometimes a whole business operation —  is passed along from generation to generation.

Crafting the ‘Chicago Look’

Walk into the back of the shop and right away, a heavy scent hits you and reminds you of the company’s roots. Paints and brushes lay stacked on a counter covered with technicolor drippings. Two long tables stretch along the length of the shop’s back room with a roll of white paper at the end. On the day we visit, the team is hard at work. Their process is simple, but precise.

It starts with the paper. They cut it, then paint fat, squiggly lines across the top and bottom, framing the center, and then add on the item and price. It’s straight from the can to paper. No tracing — just smooth hand strokes. Watching the paint covered brush glide across the paper can feel hypnotic.

The steady hand is important, Chuck explains, but so is the layout and placement of the product name and prices. “One of the first things I learned: If a car is going down the street 30, 40 miles an hour, what do you want ‘em to read? What do you want ‘em to see?” Chuck says. “It’s not the little lettering. They want to see ‘MILK, 1.99.’”

Hand-painted signs make sense economically, from both the sign-painters’ and shop owners’ perspectives. For one thing, hand-painting supplies are inexpensive compared to the price of ink for a digital printer. And, Southwest Signs can turn out the hand-painted products quickly.

Chuck demonstrates with the start of another order. “This sign? And the item and price? I bet it’ll take me maybe 10 minutes,” he says. “What do you think, you want to time me?”

According to Dan, that simplicity and efficiency translate into lower costs for shop owners. “Price-wise it is still worth it for them to get it and throw it away.”

Southwest Signs says they are known for their layout, brushwork, attention to detail, and the colors they use — called a Chicago style.  “Now, the Chicago sign technically is chromatic colors, so it’s the yellow, blue, red, green, but in recent years ... we can get florescent colors” Chuck says, adding the caveat that the fluorescents have become more popular than the traditional colors. “I enjoy that every order’s different, so my next order will probably not be these colors, not be this style, something different. Something different every day,” he says.

Sign styles and colors vary by neighborhood or even by store. I ask everyone I speak to — from sign painters, to paint vendors — if they had seen Chicago-style signs with big fat letters and bright colors outside the Chicago area. The question stoked memories of signs in small mom-and-pop grocery stores in Ohio, Massachusetts, New York, California, and Mexico. To get a sense of the Chicago region’s local variety of hand-painted signs, we asked you to send us photos of ones that cross your path. You can see dozens of examples we collected by clicking on the image below:

But, the classic Chicago look is something that long-time sign painter Bob Behounek says spread across the country after sign painters came to learn and paint in the city during the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.

"Chicago's been known, for the last 120 some years, as the sign capital of the world," he says, describing the Chicago look as more than just colors. “A Chicago look is: I would call it the show-card look. It was the quick brush, a lot of color ... It’s a color swash, and lettering inside the coloring swash. ... That's what these guys here in Chicago perfected, the Chicago look with this panelization and real quick scripts, and fun lettering and minimization of copy.”

State of the industry

In Chicago, these hand-painted grocery stores signs used to be the norm. And that’s because small grocery stores were everywhere. Before large-format digital printing came along, everything that needed to be read from a distance from signs to trucks had to be painted by hand. But the hand-painted business has shrunk dramatically over the years.

Dan says Southwest Signs was hit hard during the last recession: “All of these mom and pop stores went under right away and that’s who we would do signs for.”

Local painters and paint vendors estimate there are about ten businesses that still produce hand-painted paper signs in the city. They range from a guy painting out of his basement or garage, to a father and son team, and other family members working side by side. There’s Rudy Cobos of R and L Custom signs, whose clients include Stanley’s on Elston and La Casa Del Pueblo on Blue Island. There’s also George Darwent of George’s Paper Signs, whose clients include Edgewater Produce and Morse Market on the North Side of the city.

Carol says most of the local sign painters know each other. Each paint shop has its own customers who have, for the most part, stuck with them over the years.

“There is room for everybody in the sign business and that’s what I like,” she says. “There’s a piece of pie for everybody.”

Southwest Signs has managed to survive by diversifying. They bought a large-format digital printer 10 years ago, and digital-focused orders have revved up in the past five years. Today, he says, the hand-painted paper sign orders make up only about 10 percent of their work.

Inside Southwest Signs. Kathleen Rooney/WBEZ

The shop’s digital prints can include photographs, logos or all manner of images. They don’t replicate the hand-painted look, but they still require the same attention to detail, layout, and color sense — something only the human eye can do, Dan says.

“We’re thinking like a sign painter, not like a graphic designer,” he says. “Now you’ve got smaller grocers that are buying printers and printing their own and designing their own. But they think they can just type it in and it’s going to look good, but there’s a lot that goes into designing these signs.”

Will these painters hang up their brushes anytime soon?

Judging by the number of hand-painted paper signs you can spy in neighborhoods such as Rogers Park, local stores will maintain some demand for these signs for a while.

Outside of Devon Market, a bustling independent grocery store in that neighborhood, neon signs advertise deals on international products and produce. “It’s part of the store, signs like that,” says manager Moses Millan. “It makes the store feel more family, more at home for the customers. It’s part of us. It’s part of the family-owned tradition.”

Each week Millan calls up a father and son team to order about 15 signs at a cost of around $100.  

“It’s just a nice thing to do out there, the colors, it catches people’s attention,” says Millan. “And being just a family-owned store, we don’t want to seem like we’re really sophisticated. We just want to keep it old-school.”

Letters and prices. That’s what matters to these stores, and paying someone to design signs on a computer (or doing it themselves) — to create a file, approve it, and print it — just doesn’t make sense at their business scale. A painter like Chuck could finish a sign in 10 minutes — likely long before a digital proof could be approved by a store-owner.

Plus, Millan says the hand-painted signs work. People come in asking for the deals. Farther north, at another family owned business, Supermercado Chapala, owner Miguel Hernandez says that he can predict what would happen if they stopped putting their brightly painted signs in the windows of their Clark Street store: “Customers would think we are closing. They’d think we are shutting down.”

Our questioner Kathleen is grateful the signs have a place in the city landscape now and will for the foreseeable future. ”I do maintain hope that the paper signs, though they will never be a majority market share in Chicago, they will always have a role to play, because they do something that no other type of sign can do,” she says.

And maybe Kathleen’s optimism isn’t so far-fetched. Last month, an order came in to Southwest Signs. It was for hand-painted paper signs for 16 stores across the Chicago area — all for a grocery chain that, 100 years ago, was just a small, family-owned business: Jewel.  

About our questioners:

Questioner Kathleen Rooney on our visit to Southwest Signs. Liz Stanton/WBEZ

Kathleen Rooney is a professor of English and creative writing at DePaul University. And, Helenmary Sheridan is a librarian at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.  The two friends first started talking about their interest in paper grocery signs over Twitter. You might spot Kathleen out on one of her epic walks across the city, nibbling on a produce deal and scanning the cityscape for more handmade goods along the way.

Liz Stanton is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. Follow her at @ElizAnnStan.

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