Down Main Street

So, I’ll throw this question open to the class: is it pronounces Wilkes-Barry, or Wilkes-Bear? Ask anyone within a 75-mile radius of the place, and you get a 50-50 split. I was told by a girl I went to high school with, who was from the city in question, that it was Wilkes-Barry. But I’ve heard commercials on the radio and TV on the local stations who utilize Wilkes-Bear. Personally, I don’t like Wilkes-Bear. But then, I also say creek instead of crick.


Every once in a while, I run into a sign that I had researched previously, but wasn’t looking for at the time. While driving down Main Street in Wilkes-Barre (as part of the excursion that brought us to the Sterling), we spot something in the trees. Laura sees it a second before I do, and I don’t get a real good look, but neon was close, I could smell it. We pull off and take a look:


One of the things that I focus in on when taking pictures of signs is the amount of interference. Are the surroundings distracting? When I parked myself underneath the trees and started shooting, I was very concerned that I wouldn’t get the results I had hoped for. In the shot above, taken with the whole sign, I find it too busy. But then, I hauled out the long lens and got some close-ups, and here, I think the shadows and greenery enhance:


Later, when I started reviewing the pictures on the big screen, one of my favorite things happened. Very often, I catch something in a picture I’ve taken that I didn’t notice when I was standing there. Look at the shot below:


At the time, I noticed that the bottom part of the sign had been redone, in an impossibly sloppy manner. But then I noticed the dear old neon bullet holes, and I started to think, they don’t match. This sign didn’t say Cocktail Lounge originally. And then I saw the faint outlines of what would have been behind the neon, and then it made sense. The top line reads SEA FOOD, and the second line reads STEAKS – CHOPS.

So Donahue’s had been a restaurant, prior to its conversion to a “Cocktail Lounge.” I love finding out stuff like that.

More from Main Street in the next post.

Destruction and Rebirth

Our friends Denise and Lynn have been trying to get us to Wilkes-Barre for at least a year to see the Sterling Hotel, an abandoned building on the Susquehanna that was one of the more opulent places of its day. We got a chance to visit at the beginning of June, and out we went to the city to see it. The sign, of course, is not much to see, but even in these passing glances you can see the magnificence of it.

sterling sterling-fire-escape

In the course of taking these shots I noticed another guy with a point-and-shoot working around the building from the other side. We met in the middle, both of us shaking our heads at how much the place had gone to seed.

“They’re tearing it down end of July,” he said. “Too far gone to save.”

I re-doubled my effort to get shots. Last chance at this old beauty.


You know there’s a problem when there’s a tree growing on your hotel…sterling-back

Lynn talked to the guy a bit more, told him about what I do. He said he was from Plymouth, which I knew of because I had gotten some shots there last year. “They knocked down an old building across from Fainberg’s,” he said, and my ears perked up. Fainberg’s was the furniture store I went to visit; their neon sign was straight out of the thirties, it appeared. “The building was from 1896, and when they tore it down they uncovered an old tobacco sign from 1892.”

Well, I thought, guess we’re going back to Plymouth.

So, sure enough, as we drove along US 11, we came upon an empty lot, and at the far end, we saw this:


Mail Pouch Alert!


So often, I’m talking about the bad side of the story, like the Sterling: a sign or a building that no one seems to have use for and is deemed “beyond saving.” But this one seemed like a win for history’s sake. Glad to see you again, old man. It’s been a long time…

On a side note, last year Laura and I had taken the road less traveled to Pottsville because I had read about a Mail Pouch sign on the side of a tavern. Look below and you’ll see why I couldn’t resist. But also, note the similarity of the signs. Same artist?


G. W. Hooven Mercantile, Pottsville, PA

Urban Renewal

Signs and buildings are always a casualty of urban renewal, and whereas some need/have to go for safety concerns or plain darn ugliness, there’s always one or two gems that caught in the friendly fire. Allentown has been preparing for a brand new hockey stadium downtown which hopes to bring some revitalization to the downtown area, and in the process a good chunk of the area has been flattened. Fortunately, I caught some images in this area before these were removed:


The Linden Bar and Restaurant was on the corner of 7th and Linden. It was a tricky sign to get to, and quite honestly the only shot I got of it I managed to get with my K20d while stopped at a stop light.


The 7th Street Delicatessen was just up the road. This was decidedly one of those where I’m glad I got a shot of it, but I wasn’t surprised or dismayed in the least when it came down. Love the raised lettering. This type of sign is a very rare sight these days, although this type of lettering on tile was very common at one point.

Bonus, though: in the process of knocking down some buildings on Hamilton Street, they uncovered a ghost sign that’s already become one of my favorites.


Like Jazz

Last Friday I went to my regularly-scheduled part-time job, video editing the television broadcast for a local church, and discovered as I walked in the door that this was not going to be an ordinary day. Funeral services were going to be held in the main sanctuary, and for somebody well-known, I was told. It turned out to be for jazz pianist Mulgrew Miller, who passed away after a stroke on May 29th.

Did I mention that I was a huge jazz fan?

As I helped out with some of the multimedia support, I saw such jazz luminaries in attendance as Ron Carter, Kenny Garrett, and Russell Malone, among others. Afterwards, I was amazed at how I just happened to be there: sad, of course, that the great man had passed at the age of 57, but glad that I happened to be there at the celebration of his life.

The right place at the right time…so how does that apply to taking pictures of signs? you ask.

I know I constantly preach get the shot anytime, anywhere, no matter what, and that’s true. The “Flats Fixed” service station I had been blessed to photograph last July (if you missed these shots, click here) was the fruit of that, and if I hadn’t stopped that day, I would have been impossibly disappointed later. Like jazz, improvise on the fly. But also like jazz, practiced and experienced enough to make the right decisions, to play the right notes.

For this reason, I’ve started to make a habit of revisiting places I’ve photographed before, just to see if I get some different results. If nothing else, to stay in practice, to learn from previous mistakes and make new ones. Most often, my second time through the shots come out better, and sometimes much better. Recently I made a trip from Harrisburg to Allentown along I-78. There are two great signs in a town appropriately called Midway. First, the Midway Motel:


The Motel has been gone for some time, but the sign still stands in front of a vacant lot. The “TV” speaks to this signs age: after all, it doesn’t even say Color TV. I’ve stopped here before, but now I was used to this stop. I know where to park, I know where to stand, I know which shots look the best. And all of that knowledge frees my mind up to be able to improvise. Maybe I stand a long way off and use my long lens. Maybe I use a filter, or (gasp) the cheap Holga lens with a Pentax mount I got for Christmas. At any rate, I tried the “straight-on” approach to this shot on a sunny day, and I love the results.

Next, Trainer’s Midway Diner, and this is where the magic of improvisation comes in. This was my third time getting shots here. It has a lovely long parking lot suitable for trucks that allows a lot of possibilities and angles. But I went “straight-on” with this one, too:


A tremendous sign, but do you notice something? I sure didn’t as I was taking this picture, but I was soon made aware of it. This was the fifth shot I had taken, and in my opinion, the best. I was lining up for shot #6 when I heard something: a hollow metal snap and then the beating of wings. It startled me for a half-second until I figured out the noise came from a bird that had poked his way out of the sign and flown off. I was disappointed because I thought I had missed it.

When I got home later, I told Laura the story as I popped the SD card into the TV to take a look at the shots I had gotten that afternoon. And who do you suppose shows up in the shot?


There’s something intensely cool about a classic sign becoming a bird sanctuary.

Improvisation is good, planning is good, and experience is good, but when all three come together, it becomes something far greater. Sometimes you find something you never expected.

Flats Fixed

Last year, in my never-ending quest to find new ways of getting to the same old places, I happened through Jonestown, Pennsylvania on PA 72. I saw something interesting out of the corner of my eye on the side of the building and so I pulled over and investigated. When I did, I got some of my favorite shots, at an old building that used to be a service station.Uniroyal


I turned the corner, and there was more. Much, much more. Had the sun held up, I might have stayed hours, catching every little detail:  flats-fixedclosed-sundays vulcanizing

I wish there were a happy ending to this story, but there really isn’t. Last week I went by the same location, hoping to get a few more shots, but they were in the process of tearing the building down:


A sad end, but perhaps the old place was beyond repair. Still, I’m so glad I stopped by that day last summer. For more signs and locations that I managed to get to in the nick of time, visit my Vanishing America page.


Driving along the Southern Tier. I still had the bad taste of Bath in my mouth, and as we passed Corning and Elmira I didn’t want to even think of stopping to go through and do some sign-spotting. Instead, as we skimmed along the Pennsylvania border, the sign-spotting came to us.

Somehow, I had completely forgotten about O’Briens Inn. From the eastbound side of NY 17 (or future I-86, or whatever it’s being called on a Tuesday), you can see some lettering high up on a hill for at least five miles. OBRIENS. We both gazed up at it. I reminded myself every moment that the road needed more attention than the sign. (Here’s a good collection of pictures on TripAdvisor, to give you an idea of the location).

“Can we get to it?” Laura asked me.

“Oh, I’m going to try,” I said.

We got off the US 220 exit and headed slightly toward the town of Waverly, then made a turn left up the hill. Up ahead, the sign was right in front of us, and as we got closer, I mapped out what I had to do to get the shot I wanted. I was going to get as close as I possibly could to those old beauties, letters 15 feet high with the full weight of the afternoon sun beating down on them! It’s Christmas!

I saw a dirt road off to the side and I swung the car into it. All I had to do was climb the hill and I would be on top of it. It was a bit steep but not bad, and when I got to the top, I knew I had found the mother lode:


What can I say? I’m a sucker for big letters.

These were two of the best, but I probably snapped off about fifty all tolled between my iPhone and my K-5. I had just finished getting some shots from the left side and I was halfway down to the car, when I turned and thought about getting a few more. I raised the eye-piece to me eye and was just about to hit the shutter when…

“You’re on private property. Get off!”

I turned. There was a guy on the second floor of the hotel. He wasn’t actually shaking his fist at me, but there was every chance he might. “Okay,” I said, and slid back down the hill, my heart thumping from being startled in the midst of my reverie.

The first time I’ve ever been told to leave. Oh, well. It was bound to happen sometime.


A rare photograph of the Sanders in the wild.

Mixed Blessings

Our trip through the north end of the Finger Lakes had been glorious, as it almost always is. The lakes themselves are, of course, spectacular, but even the spaces in between are bucolic, full of meadows and farms and wide-open spaces. The normal routine for us has been to go to Geneva and cut south along NY 14 and skirt along Seneca to Watkins Glen. But we took a detour this time.

While we were driving, it occurred to me: Penn Yan, which was only a few miles away, sits atop Keuka Lake, which we had never visited. Well, why not? I thought.

And off to Penn Yan we went. And midway through town, I spot a sign. Not the best, mind you, but decently old. More importantly, it was connected to a diner, and the diner was simply amazing. Practically imbedded in the Earth, the Penn Yan Diner is a tremendous time capsule, small enough that you couldn’t fit 10 people in it without someone calling the fire brigade:


Keuka itself is a little different. It is Y-shaped, although it is commonly referred to as “The Crooked Lake”. We traveled along the east side of the lake to Hammondsport, a town which looked like a good candidate for sign-spotting. Alas, as lovely as Hammondsport is (see below), I didn’t find much of anything in the way of signs. Oh, well.


It’s always a good day when a classic Ford crosses your path…hammondsport

Keuka Lake at Hammpondsport


And then came the mixed blessings.

The next town along NY 54 is Bath, which I had passed through a few times on NY 17, but had never really visited. We drove through the center of town, which was rather dusty and nigh unto abandoned. Economics of the last twenty-five years have hit these kinds of large town/small city places especially hard; you recognize what it was, but only with a little imagination, because what it is is decay. No worries on my part; usually the best signs are in the rusty, dusty parts of towns just like this.

The decay of Bath was seen very clearly in the Steuben Bowl, which I found down one of the main streets:


I spun back through an alley, and saw a bearded man stumbling through a nearby parking lot. There were several parking lots back behind the main buildings, but all were empty, giving the impression that the town may have been abandoned, or at least, that they people were still here, but didn’t dare to go out.


The Betty Kay Bake Shop, Bath, NY

When we had passed through the main street I had seen something down an alley, and when we came back out again, I could see what it was: a Wrigley’s Doublemint ghost sign. I had never seen one, and this one looked in good shape. There was also a bakery, the Betty Kay Bake Shop, that had some interesting type sitting atop its overhang. I parked in front of it, got one shot, and had ever intention of getting another, when two guys strolled along beside me. They were scruffy and had paper bags that could only contain one thing.

“Take a picture of me and Donny,” said one of them.

I laughed. Usual reaction I get when I’m holding a camera. People don’t usually mean it, they’re just being funny, or trying to be.

“No, take a picture of me and Donny,” he says, more definitively this time.

“Uh, OK,” I say.

I point the K-5 in their direction and fire off the shutter. I had the camera in manual mode, so it was at the same setting I had it in when I got the Bakery sign. The shot was just a silhouette. They didn’t ask to see it. They moved on. I went to take another shot of the Betty Kay, when I spot the two of them out of the corner of my eye, standing in the lot of an old gas station, about twenty feet away, staring, talking to each other.

Behind me, Laura opens the passenger’s side door. She’s seen them, too, and she’s getting the same uneasy feeling that I’m getting. “Get in,” she says.

Yes, I do believe I will, I thought. The Wrigley’s Spearmint can perhaps wait.

Perhaps I’m giving Bath, NY a bad rep. But I’ve taken shots in some bad neighborhoods in Easton and Allentown, in Harrisburg, in Baltimore, and in the heart of Shamokin, PA (those of you who have visited that fascinating coal town probably just shuddered a little at the thought), and this is the creepiest feeling I’ve ever gotten while shooting. We got out of the Bath, post-haste.