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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Roadside Route 1

How important are signs? Just say “Red’s Eats” or “Moody’s Diner” to a summer visitor and then sit back and listen.

Driving to Belfast yesterday, I mused, as I often do, on the many Mom-and-Pop businesses along the way. They’re as much a part of the Maine landscape as the rocks and the lobster boats. Their signs are idiosyncratic, old-fashioned and different than in most tourist destinations. Without them, Route 1 would be much less interesting.

Signage, in its most utilitarian form, instructs us. Beyond that, it is a social art form. It decorates, it identifies, and it communicates ideas to passers-by.

“Your house has a name!” my Scottish friend Martha exclaimed when she visited me last summer. Middle-class Americans don’t generally name their houses. Britons do. But our sign has been there since long before we bought this place. It is called Richards Hill after the first owner, from when the surrounding area was farmland. It wasn’t my place to take its nameplate down, even though I have a different business sign at the street.

In fact, many buildings along Route 1 have multiple signs from different periods. These are like layers in an archeological dig. There’s a motel in Lincolnville with a dull 1990s-era street sign. But its office sign is perfect mid-century neon.

In my town (Rockport) business signs must be small, not internally lighted, and conform to a setback. That isn’t true everywhere on Route 1, but it does contribute to the aesthetic of hand-painted, hand-carved signs that prevails here.

Neon, which was introduced in the 1920s and reached its peak in the 1940s, is used sparingly. It’s not permitted in Rockport, but in general it’s expensive, and the tubes break.

Part of the reason signage here is so charming is that Mainers are basically frugal. They don’t change what ain’t broke. Signs last a long time if maintained.

The other part is that big-box stores, by and large, have little presence here. There are some, but they’re not ubiquitous and despoiling, as they are in so many places. The absence of their large, lighted signs is refreshing.

Signs tell us a lot about the people within the businesses they advertise. There are antique shops on Route 1 that are barely more than a rotating flea market. Others are quite elegant, and their signage is more tasteful.

Signs also reflect personality and background. Here in Maine, they tend toward the ‘colonial’, which speaks both to their mid-century vintage and the predominant WASP culture.

How important are signs? Just say “Red’s Eats” or “Moody’s Diner” to a summer visitor and then listen as they start bubbling over. Signs are part of a place’s cultural heritage and its community memory. They are landmarks, sometimes more important than the buildings they mark. They’re individual, clever, and evocative. That’s art, folks.

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