The night Aardvark Books ended its 40-year run on Church Street, customers could be seen carrying stacks of books from near-empty shelves past farewell signs that hinted at some unfinished business. The loss of a beloved bookstore was one thing, but the building itself was another. The modest plea “Neon sign, anyone?” was accompanied with a slightly panicked “Please rescue our neon sign!” in the window display.
Employees said that some customers expressed interest, but once the reality of how much it would cost to remove Aardvark’s red vintage sign settled in, they backed out. It’s no easy task; you’d have to pay people for their labor, hire an electrician, rent a crane, secure a vehicle big enough to hold the sign, and locate storage space. All told, sign-removal experts have estimated that relocation would cost between $500 and $4,000.
“There’s a lot that can go wrong with sign removal,” says Al Barna, co-author of San Francisco Neon, which is also the name of a network of neon-sign enthusiasts. “People are interested in these signs, and they’re all worth saving.”
Barna and his longtime partner, Randall Ann Homan, would know. They released a Saving Neon guide in November, and hold an annual Neon Speaks Festival and Symposium every April. Dozens of people have reached out to the couple about Aardvark’s sign in but few have committed — especially considering they would still need permission from the building owner and, potentially, permits from the city for temporarily obstructing a street or sidewalk.
Paul Hayes has the studio space to hold Aardvark’s sign in the Bayview, where it would live among a sort of artists collective, but he needs to raise funds to remove it. Hayes is still waiting for a return call from the new building owner, whose representative says is still working through the space’s transformation but who might want to form a removal partnership.
“She’s well aware of the interest there. She understands the historical value,” says Andrew Falzone, a real estate agent for the new owner, whose name he declined to give. “I don’t think the sign is going anywhere anytime soon.”
Should no one in the Bay Area be willing or able, an elementary school teacher in Reno is inclined to step in. Will Durham has saved more than 100 signs for the past couple decades through the Nevada Neon Project, and he’s working on launching a museum similar to the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale. His state representative, Assemblymember Sarah Peters, is even introducing legislation to make neon the official chemical element of Nevada.
“You realize this is part of something bigger,” Durham says of the growing interest in neon. “This was something that was curiously overlooked and now people are starting to recognize the significance. The legacy is being preserved.”
As other forms of lighting — plastic, cheap, and machine-made — rose decades ago, neon fell into disrepair and became associated with blight. But local neon glass artists like Shawna Peterson and Jim Rizzo, who both operate in Oakland and worked on the Castro Theater sign restoration in 2008 for the Milk biopic, are seeing a return to neon as an art form in the last decade. Plus, handmade neon can last decades, where LED likely won’t.
“They all looked the same, all capital bold letters, and nobody wanted anything different,” Peterson says of signs she used to make. “Now it’s super-trendy in office spaces. In general, people are more creative now.”
Relatively new signs include the Capo’s in North Beach and the ones adorning Black & Blue Tattoo and Fiat Lux in the Mission. The latter two are up against the window rather than in a metal cabinet, which provides an opportunity to look up close at the transformers, phosphorous tubing, and flowing gas.
The city seems similar value in preserving neon signs. SF Shines gives grants to improve storefronts, but beloved signs like Doc’s Clock also received a special vintage designation under the Planning Code allowing it to be moved to the dive bar’s new location at 2417 Mission St. The re-lighting ceremony in September drew a crowd that erupted into cheers as the glow of neon — made possible by roughly $13,000 in crowdfunding — lit their faces once again.
But other signs under threat from a business move or closure often don’t get the same attention. Despite the collective mourning of Aardvark Books, the effort to save its sign has been largely behind the scenes, with Homan and Barna as de facto facilitators as they continuously draw attention to needed repairs.
In the same neighborhood as Aardvark, old-school Market Street diner It’s Tops isn’t on the chopping block, but its vertical section — reading “fountain” in Art Deco lettering — is losing its shine. A couple blocks west, however, Homan and Barna say Safeway has continuously maintained its sole neon sign.
California is home to 19 percent of the country’s surviving vintage signs — more than 1,000 — according to historian Debra Jane Seltzer’s 2018 survey through RoadsideArchitechture.com. That also means the state is losing more of these neon signs than other parts of the United States. (Texas is next, with about eight percent of the country’s neon signs.)
Once rescued, signs often need restoration that must be done carefully to retain the vintage look. One of the biggest threats to the longevity of neon signs? Pigeon droppings. The birds everyone loves to hate can turn something as simple as a left-open access panel into a warm new home and a nightmare for cleaning. Durham once had to remove hundreds of pounds of bird waste from a long-abandoned Reno casino sign that has yet to be restored.
Whether or not the Aardvark sign has pigeon droppings inside has yet to be determined. Falzone says the new building owner of 227 Church St. is still wrinkling out renovation plans and may have an update in the coming weeks. Like the rest of their neon sign network, Barna and Homan hope it can remain part of the neighborhood’s fabric and visible to the general public.
“Often, the sign just goes in the basement because no one really knows what to do with it,” Homan says. “We always say it’s valuable as a sign because it brings people to the business. We actually want to see the sign stay in the city landscape and not displaced to people’s backyards or private collectors.”
Ida Mojadad is a staff writer at SF Weekly.
Imojadad@sfweekly.com | @idamoj