Driving around town, Norman James keeps an eye out for old neon signs. Called "projectors" by sign guys, they generally hang over sidewalks in front of businesses—dry cleaners, record stores, and taverns—that may have been shuttered for years.
"I'm on the lookout whenever I'm on any major artery," says James. "Reisterstown Road. Belair Road. Ritchie Highway. That's where the cars were."
Then, he devises ways to give the signs a good home: His.
James, 43, is on a mission to save Baltimore's neon signs. He has helped recondition signs from Jimmy Wu's Chinese Restaurant and the United Sanitary Chemicals Company for the Maryland Historical Society, and helped restore several others that now hang in the Baltimore Museum of Industry.
But it's in James' backyard that things really light up. Classic signs from Luby's Chevrolet, Friese Delicatessen, White Tower, Goldberg's Liquors, F.W. Woolworth, and Fullerton Savings & Loan are mounted behind his Anne Arundel County home inside an 8-foot-high fence.
"It's what I do when it's the weekend and I'm out in the garage having a beer," says James, who works for—no surprise here—a local sign company.
To "rescue" a sign, James scans through tax records to find the owner if the business is closed (which is usually the case), or he introduces himself to the proprietor if the business is still open. At the Little Tavern, in Laurel, he got to know the employees, too. "I monitored it for 15 to 20 years," says James. "I'd go and talk to the waitresses just to make sure they weren't going to close. You do what you have to, you know?"
He also scans the Baltimore Business Journal's public information listings for impending demolitions and rehab jobs. Often, signs come down with buildings.
Once he's gotten permission from the owner, he'll return with a crew and a crane truck to remove the sign. It can cost up to $2,000, but it's usually much less. "Sometimes, I'm asked for a donation to a softball team or charity," says James. "But a lot of times, I can get them for free. Typically, people are honored that you're interested."
Still, there are some signs that are too big or iconic to get: Domino Sugar, the Laurel Giant Food sign (under which George Wallace was shot in 1972), and The 2 O' Clock Club on The Block.
"There are three others around town that I've got my eye on," he adds, though he declines to divulge the locations. "The owners all know of my interest. I'm not quite done yet."
When James is ultimately done, he says, "The Cosy Tourist Inn sign will go over my coffin at the funeral home."
Route 40 West and Ingleside Avenue
"I got this one in June, 2004, and it was a really difficult one to pull down. It weighed several tons and was in several parts, and some of them had been fused to the building. I had gotten a key from the demolition crew that had been hired to tear the place down. Before we dismantled it, we decided to pull out some lawn chairs, drink some beers, and fire that baby up for the last time. I always loved the sign—the way the lights in the arrows ran underneath the "SHIRTS" and "DRY CLEANING." As we sat there, some salesmen from out of town who were staying at the Days Inn next door grabbed some beers and joined us. I flipped the switch. It was glorious. They were tearing down the Westview Lounge as well, so I got their neon lettering, too."
Speedy Valet Cleaners
Greenmount Avenue and 21st Street
"This was an old neon job that Belsinger Signs, where I work, had done in 1952. The business had been boarded up for years by the time I started to look into rescuing it, and the neighborhood had seen better days. The owner of the building was an old Korean man who I tracked down through city tax records… There was a language barrier, plus I think he was really frustrated that his investment in that business had lost him lots of money. I would wave dollars at him at his door, but he wouldn't have anything to do with it. One day, a buddy who is a city cop said he knew a Korean cop who knew the owner. The cop explained to the owner, in their language, how passionate I am about signs. In the end, he refused the $500 I offered him and let me take it for free. On the Wednesday morning in 2004 when we went to take it, there was a man who looked like he was asleep on the sidewalk next door. As we took the sign down, police came and declared the guy dead. I'm sure it was an overdose or something."
Dutch Mill Lounge
6615 Harford Road
"I always loved the sign because the windmill lit up panel by panel. It's unique. People knew I was looking to get the piece. So, I got a tip [in 2006] that the sign was down and that I'd find it in a Dumpster behind the building. By the time I got there, the roof had collapsed. That's when it happens—when you're off guard. Contractors just throw stuff like this out. Amazing."
6603 Belair Road
"I decided that, instead of building your regular old backyard shed, I'd make something that shows my love for corner drug stores and my experience rescuing signs from them. It took me six months to finish it. I got the gooseneck lights from the old White Tower near where Montgomery Park is now. I got a lot of the rest of the stuff in here—old bottles, snake-oil remedies, and countertop merchandise from the 1950's—from the basement of places like the old Wilkens Pharmacy. The "BELL DRUGS" sign itself is from 1946." (The drug store set-up includes a vintage, neon Hendler's Ice Cream sign—"The Velvet Kind"—that James bought "for way too much money" at an advertising exhibition.)
RCA Victor Radio Center
Greenmount Avenue, near 32nd Street
"This might be the most historic piece I have because there's nothing like it anywhere. I ended up finding it [in 2003] on the back lot of a sign shop that doesn't exist anymore. It had sat there for 18 years. It's an 8-foot-around, 1-ton record—the RCA store was a record store—with little versions of Nipper, the RCA dog, chasing each other in neon around the edges. That made it look like the record was spinning. It was very impressive when it worked. It'll take me a lot of work to get it looking like that again."