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cityscape

Boards of Ed

The man behind the hand-painted signs at Honest Ed's.

20090329HonestEds2.jpeg

From time to time, the landmark store on the southwest corner of Bloor and Bathurst will turn on its famous storefront sign and wash the street in the effulgence of its twenty-three thousand bulbs. It’s a captivating sight.

But often overlooked are the other signs at Honest Ed’s—the ones of blue, red, and yellow that, camped out amongst the items for sale, announce only their names and prices. No avuncular, groan-inducing puns or flashing lights to captivate your attention here; these seem homespun in comparison, easy to ignore. But like all things Mirvish, there is something unconventional about the signs, something off yet showy, and a moment of consideration reveals what it is: they’re all hand-painted.

At first, it seems impossible if not impractical that all these signs, which number in the hundreds, are produced by hand, endeavours of smaller scale nowadays being entrusted to digital means of reproduction. But look closely and sure enough minor variations in the letters start to emerge, perhaps in the vertical stroke of the “E” or the tilt of the “D.” A human hand, not a machine, authored all these signs. And they’re literally everywhere: walk into the store and the little rectangles dominate the visual field. Unconsciously, the eye anchors itself to the constellation of signs that, in the store of sundries stretching into infinity, is the closest thing to a consistent motif you’ll encounter.

Partly owing to a sentimentality for all things outmoded, partly out of sheer curiousity, Torontoist sought out who was responsible for these signs. After talking to a few employees who paused and gave us a look of half-pity, half-confusion when we told them we were interested in the signs, we got a name: Wayne Reuben.

We set up an interview with Wayne Reuben over the phone. At first, we pictured a nice but elderly gentleman—partially sighted, given to walking slow and sweater-vests—bent over a table, working slowly, purposefully, in regular measured strokes, and so was caught off-guard when the voice on the other line was clear and direct, his replies quick and terse.

“Hi, is this Wayne Reuben?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, hey. It’s Torontoist, we were given this number by Maria. We’re interested in doing a story on your signs…Did she say anything about that?”

“Somewhat.”

“Ok…”

20090329HonestEds1.jpeg
Wayne Reuben looks over the day’s requests.

Wayne is not elderly. He does not dodder. When he enters the room where we’re waiting, he almost fills the entire doorway and has to bend his neck so as to not hit his head. We shake hands. He leads the way to the sign shop, navigating the aisles purposefully, turning into an obscured passageway meant for employees only. “This way’s faster.”

Wayne told Torontoist that he started at Honest Ed’s in 1967, after graduating from college. He didn’t stay long—only two and half years—before leaving to do window displays at Simpson’s, then a large chain department store and main rival of the Hudson’s Bay Company, but now defunct. He returned to Honest Ed’s in 1995 and has worked there since.

Though he studied commercial art in college, it wasn’t until he became an employee of Ed Mirvish that he started to paint signs. An “English guy” named “John” is all he can recall about his predecessor who taught him the basics of his craft. As we walk through the store, he points out the first sign he did for the store in 1967, still hanging. The letters are inconsistent, diminishing in height as they go from right to left like some evolutionary timeline of letters but in reverse. Some words are crammed together to one side, leaving an unnatural gap. It’s an example of Reuben’s early period.

Eventually we reach a white, swinging door with the words “Sign Shop” painted onto the glass. A long table angled for comfort runs along the wall, splattered in yellow, red, and blue, and a vague lavender where the colours intermingled. Order forms and letter templates hang from above in binder clips, aging cartoons cut from newspapers and framed pictures of Blue Jays from their early-nineties apex beside them. On the shelves are bottles of red, blue, and yellow tempera paint—the kind you used in school. The office is as cluttered and varied as the store.

20090329HonestEds3.jpeg
Signmaker Douglas.

There is another gentleman, sitting on a stool, bent over a drafting table, finishing the sentence “As Advertised…” Wayne introduces him as Douglas. He’s been here twelve years and he and Wayne make up the store’s signs department. Each department of the store—menswear, groceries, etc.,—used to have its own team of sign makers, Wayne tells me, but now their ranks have dwindled down to two. It used to be that every sign hanging in every storefront was painted. Even advertisements appearing in major periodicals were illustrated in pencil then painted not too long ago. Long gone are those days, and now the overriding concerns of budgets and time constraints make the computer the logical option. “It’s a dying practice,” Wayne says. “Honest Ed’s is really the only store that does it anymore.”

It’s hard to picture an alternative to the signs that have quietly become as constitutive as the electronic sign itself. Wal-Mart-style signs with interchangeable numbers dominating the store, or worse, computer print outs would be terribly sterile and lacking. They’d be mute in a store where everything is optical drama.

Before we can ask what’ll happen when they retire, if the store will yield to the prevailing practice and bring in computers, we’re interrupted by a woman asking if it, a sign, is ready to go. Wayne interrupts the conversation to give the woman, Franka, a freshly painted sign advertising canned peaches.

“Ooh, that’s great, guys,” she says, pausing to examine it before going off to hang it in the store. “Thanks.”
There is a small window in the office that overlooks the store. Looking out it, you can see the main floor of Honest Ed’s. It’s sunny out and occasionally the light reflecting off passing cars will streak across shoppers who meander down aisles, pick up items, and examine them before putting them down again. They’ll glance, for a moment, at the signs, noting the price, but only that. Maybe because they don’t know or maybe because they don’t care, but maybe because in a store where novelty abounds, it fits right in.

All Photos by Matt Kim/Torontoist.

Comments

  • http://null Gloria

    Very cool story.

  • http://null ariehsinger

    Great feature!

  • http://null Delissa

    These signs are truly unique. I’ve noticed them for years but never wondered about how they were made. Thanks for this article!

  • http://null mdwebb

    THANK YOU!
    The signs are my favorite part of Honest Eds, and I’ve often wondered if they were still painted on site.

  • http://www.lezzymcguire.com gigi

    This feature wouldn’t be out of place in the New York Times. I commend the writer for taking the initiative and time to produce original content this good (and keeping the story an appropriate length for the medium.) This article stands as a testament to the quality that is possible in online journalism. The real barrier to more work like this isn’t the medium itself, but a lack of financial support and time for writers to do quality work.
    Here’s hoping advertisers (and the online news media) get their shit together and support all bloggers/journalists of this calibre with salaries and benefits afforded to their peers in print media. Only then — when online journalists are free from the part-time work that often subsidizes their blogging income and ridiculous posting schedules (and I’m not talking about Torontoist here, but other sites where bloggers are expected to churn out “feature” after “feature”, every hour on the hour) — can we really see what this medium is capable of producing.
    Thank you, Matt Kim. This is an excellent piece of journalism.

  • http://null leonardbast

    Great, great story. This is really excellent stuff, and I hope to see more like it in Torontoist. Congrats.

  • http://null Taylor Roberts

    Everything old is new again! Many thanks for a fine story; as Gigi wrote above, this is indeed great journalism, and local, too.

  • http://null LK

    Excellent piece. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Well done, Matt!

  • http://undefined David Toronto

    Wonderful story. Let’s see more
    like this.

  • http://www.blog.canoe.ca/canoedossier David Newland

    I love this and I would love to see more of it: the character of the city emerges in its details.
    A couple of things I didn’t get from this story that I’d like to know:
    1) Do the sign painters actually work on site at Ed’s? It seems so but it’s not fully clear to me.
    2) What happens to the signs when the sale is off? Are they resold, repainted, recycled, or can a guy get hold of some for souvenirs?
    3) What about the (few remaining) other hand-painted sign-using places? I can think of a butcher shop on Queen East, for example, that has similar-looking signs. Is this a Toronto thing? or just an old-timey thing?
    Keep up the great work!

  • http://null LK

    Excellent piece. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Well done, Matt!

  • http://null beth maher

    I’m here to add to the accolades! Beautiful story! Well done! I hope for more portraits like this here!
    Some Torontoist typography nerd (and I know there are more than a few of you) should base a new typeface on this beautiful vernacular work – on the off chance that these guys ever stop working at Ed’s, I would hate to see prefab hanging letters, or *shudder* comic sans or marker felt take their place.
    Plus, it’d totally be a fun little font to use for my design projects, on occasion.

  • Matt Kim

    Thanks for all the encouraging words. Everybody, not just DN.
    1) Yep, Wayne and Douglas both work IN the store.
    2) Wayne took me to a room which used to be a workstation for sign painters in another department. Old signs were stockpiled there. I’m sure if you asked they’d be willing to give you one.
    3) I’ll look into it!
    – Matt

  • h

    This made me happy. Thank you.

  • http://www.lezzymcguire.com gigi
  • http://www.bitpicture.com Marc Lostracco

    This story is perfection.
    Wayne Reuben needs a coffee table book made of his amazing hand-lettered sign work. It reminds me of my childhood when these signs were everywhere, particularly with their style of using unnecessary exclamation marks and underlines for emphasis:
    $6.99
    “Ladies’”
    PANTIES!

    There was a convenience store near me that until their last change of ownership, had an original hand-lettered sign in their window from who knows when that commanded:
    VISIT our “meat” and “dairy” section!

  • http://null nib

    great article, just great.
    i submitted it to digg if anyone wants to digg it up:
    http://digg.com/d1ns8B

  • http://www.bitpicture.com Marc Lostracco

    I especially love the sign in the photo with Douglas, which is a retro-current mashup:
    SPECIAL
    MP3 PLAYER
    FM TUNER
    12.99 EA.
    The little starbursts on some of the signs are just the best.

  • http://undefined spacejack

    Thanks for researching this. I’d heard they were hand-painted, but knew nothing about who makes the signs.
    At my first design job (in the days of B&W Macs, Illustrator 88 and Quark XPress) I worked with another freelancer who did traditional style calligraphy with a pen (Zapf Chancery didn’t cut it back then.) She could whip off professional quality lines of type practically as fast as you or I can write.
    It was a neat skill to watch. Being left-handed, I don’t think I would’ve been able to learn it with a pen.

  • http://undefined spacejack

    Got to love using quotes as boldface.

  • http://undefined montauk

    Great story. I love how “Douglas” is just “Douglas”, or the “predecessor” is “that English guy John”. This piece was interesting and frank and a little touching without ever getting sentimental or over-researched or editorialized on me. I wondered what Reuben thinks of it. It seems like you took pains to represent him without any projected romanticizing. Or maybe I just see projected romanticizing too much.
    I also like that you come off as slightly discombobulated.

  • http://null canrocks

    MORE OF THIS!!! MORE! This is what makes Torontoist awesome. I recently moved to London for six months, but I’ve been reading Londonist and it sucks compared to the stuff you guys pump out. I’m telling friends about this.

  • http://undefined canrocks

    I bet Honest Ed’s would make mad stacks from selling all those old signs!

  • http://undefined rek

    It might be against the spirit of the article, but I would love to see these type treatments turned into a font family. Honest Reuben Bold, anyone?

  • http://null mdwebb

    …it would make a nice counterpart to the TTC Subway typeface.

  • http://lolaberryclementine.blogspot.com/ marykate

    I have ALWAYS wondered who painted these signs! What a brilliant feature, thank you!

  • http://null e3000

    Great piece. One thing though.
    “…bottles of red, blue, and yellow tempura paint—the kind you used in school.”
    I didn’t use tempura paint in school. I did use tempera paint though. What is tempura paint, some kind of teriyaki sauce for my shrimp and veg tempura bowl?

  • http://www.torontoist.com David Topping

    Sorry, everyone who looked at this article before it was published—writer, editor, copy editor—all missed that. But we’ve fixed it now! Thanks.

  • http://null rek
  • Pan Von Sol

    Great article!
    A+, would read again!

  • http://undefined plaidsportcoat

    i want to learn this craft, have a talent for it, will volunteer to learn it. Any suggestions where to volunteer?

  • http://undefined Sezme

    Wonderful article. I remember an Honest Ed’s sign from the 90s hanging over their condom section. It read, “Big or small: we fit them all!”

  • Borkborkbork

    Honest Ed’s could do a booming business selling these signs, painted to order. They’re awesome.

    • Rompersuit

      I AGREE! Thought the same thing myself

    • Polly

      Weddings! Birthday Parties!

  • Gordon Veldhoen

    I wonder about these signs every time I go in (which is nearly every day). Thanks for the enlighenment.

  • http://www.outsideinstudio.com/ Outside In Studio

    Yes a definite thanks for the enlightenment!

  • http://www.quadrat.com/ David Vereschagin

    And for more on Honest Ed sign painter Wayne Reuben, check out the Dominion Modern video on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/18646886

  • tjom

    Cool story. Thanks!