Out of the Past

As you might imagine, I have a pretty sizable love for old stuff, so on occasion I’ve been known to stop by an antique mall or two. A couple weeks ago, I went with a purpose: my nephews were having a costume birthday party and I was going to go as a spy. So naturally I needed a spy camera, because that’s how this spy rolls.

I ended up in the Black Rose in Allentown because I was pretty sure I could find a cheap, old, plastic number that would fit the bill, and sure enough I did. It was an Ansco (made proudly in Binghamton, NY, as was I), and it even had a case to go with it. But in the meantime, as I wandered from booth to booth in this massive space, I came across a booth with three photographs, all black and white, all mounted on foam-core. The first, which caught my eye, was of a piano player, resting on top of the piano, lazily pressing his fingers to the keys. The second was of four women in identical white dresses, arranged in a semi-circle, and who should be in the middle of that semi-circle but Mr. Ray Charles himself.

And then a third, which seemed to have very little to do with the others. But that was the one I bought.

The B&M Restuarant, Pittsburgh, PAFile under: must have

I didn’t know anything about it, where it came from, where it was taken, if it still existed, but I knew I had to have it, so I swiped it up and took it home. Immediately, I popped open the laptop to try and get some information on it. A few minutes work and it was fairly obvious that the B&M no longer existed; there is a B&M in Cleveland, but none at a “1617” street address. I delved into that possibility for a while, but it seemed unlikely. Then I noticed the flyers in the window, and in tiny letters just above the circus poster, I got my answer:


Forbes Field is the former home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, so sure enough, when I looked up B&M Pittsburgh, the light went on.

The B&M was featured in a small section of John Brewer’s book “African Americans in Pittsburgh,” and even carried with it a picture of the opposite side of the sign, taken around the same time period. In it, Brewer says this:

Famous Pittsburgh-born playwright August Wilson loved the B&M Restaurant in the Hill. All of the meals were home cooked. August loved the fluffy biscuits, grits, eggs, and sometimes hotcakes to energize his thoughts. The B&M rested in the lower Center Avenue part of Pittsburgh. The owner invested in a bright shiny marble facade which caught the eye, and set the B&M at the top of the food establishments in the Hill.

And the picture on the story stated that the picture was taken from the estate of Charles “Teenie” Harris. So back to Google I went, and I got even more excited. Charles “Teenie” Harris was a magnificent photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading African-American newspapers in the country. He specialized in pictures of everyday life, but he had more than a few of baseball players and other assorted celebrities. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find the exact photograph that I have, but it would seem to be Mr. Harris’s work. Even more exciting, Teenie Harris has been honored by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh with a marvelous online archive. Go here and you won’t regret it.

Man in front of the B&M Restaurant, Pittsburgh

Obviously I love the sign, which is why I bought it, but I’ve got to admit, this guy is my favorite part of the picture. He’s just too cool. He strikes me as one of those kind of guys that just smiles and says Hi to everyone who walks past. It may be my imagination, too, but at this moment it appears that behind his glasses he’s spotted the photographer, be he Teenie Harris or not. A brief, very human moment in time, captured forever.

B&M Restaurant, Pittsburgh, PA

As for the restaurant itself, I found out that the B&M was owned and operated by a woman named Bessie Mae Rawls, who opened it up in 1949 with the help of her son and daughter. Located at 1617 Centre Avenue, the B&M was a popular place up the late 60’s, but it eventually closed in 1973. Bessie Mae lived to be 102 years old and passed away in 2007. Her obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is here.

All the better that this photograph exists. I wonder how long that picture had been sitting in the Black Rose. I honestly wonder how it got there, but I suppose in the end, it doesn’t really matter. I feel richer for learning more about Teenie Harris, even if he didn’t take this picture, and for hearing about the hospitality of Mrs. Rawls. I never met either of them, but I’ll be warmed by their memories every time I look at this photograph.

Update on Ellis Brothers

Ellis Brothers Furniture neon sign, Binghamton, NY

The good news first: since it was the Contemporary Furniture store owned by Ellis Brothers that burned down, and since there is an alley that separates Ellis Brothers’ two stores, reports of Binghamton’s long-standing furniture store’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The bad news is that half of Ellis Brothers’ business will have to be rebuilt. But, they’re fairly confident they can restore what was lost. More here.

Where Credit Is Due

Clams Casino, Helmrich's Seafood, Williamsport, PAHand lettered sign, Helmrich’s Seafood, Williamsport, PA

One of the coolest things to happen to me in a while happened to me last week: it seems that the type designer Tobias Frere-Jones was writing an article for his blog on the subject of regional type. The main body of the article is a list he composed with others of photostreams, blogs, personal sites and such, showing off “type in the wild” in a variety of countries. As it so happens, Jean-Francois Porchez, the French type designer, is a follower of mine on Instagram (which is impossibly cool all in itself), and he suggested my feed to Tobias Frere-Jones. The article is here.

Quality Seafood, Helmrich's, Williamsport, PA

These shots, showing off some of the best hand-lettering I’ve seen, are the decorations on the side of Helmrich’s Seafood in Williamsport, PA. I took these in May of 2012 and they remain some of my favorites.

Following Frere-Jones’ lead, it occurred to me that I have a lot of people I’d like to acknowledge. Whereas I am a great believer in happenstance, I have discovered that this crazy thing I do is so much easier when I get some inspiration. Here are a few sites and streams that I always go back to when the well runs dry:

Retro Roadmap: Another impossibly cool thing that as happened since I started this site up a year ago…Beth Lennon (Mod Betty, to us mere mortals) of Retro Roadmap was one of my early supporters and shared an article or two on her Facebook page. Even before I started sharing all this stuff in this form, I was reading her blog and visiting some of the places she had visited. Thanks, Mod Betty, for always inspiring me.

AgilityNut/Roadside Architecture: Debra Jane Seltzer’s site has always been a magnificent source on a variety of cool subjects. Signs, roadside architecture in general, movie theaters…you name it, she’s taken a picture of it. She’s also a dog lover, so she gets my vote right away.

Seth Gaines’ Flickr Stream: It helps to know someone local. Although I’ve never met Seth, it seems our paths cross all the time. I’m not exactly sure where he lives, but I’m amazed at the alarming frequency of pictures we have of the same stuff.

Marc Shur: LA art director and sign enthusiast who has created more sign shots that I wish I had taken than anybody else I know.

Sunsetmeridian on Instagram: Also mentioned in Tobias Frere-Jones article, Sunset and I share an affinity for Old Florida. A terrific follow on Instagram.

Iveseenthesigns on Instagram: A fellow Pennsylvania sign geek, our paths cross all the time on the internet if not in real life.

Dewey Thomas: Awesome, awesome photographer who occasionally takes pictures of signs that seem to be meant specifically to inspire me.

Cinema Treasures: THE source of information on movie theaters, living or dead.


At the Last Minute

Let’s back up a bit. A few months ago, I put out a post called “Tales of Philly Sales,” about a dear departed department store in the city of Binghamton. The response on that particular post has been tremendous, which led me to think about writing a sequel to it, sharing some of the memories that had been shared with me. I decided to use a trip to Binghamton as an opportunity to get a few more sign shots to back up the story.

A few things got in the way. First, our trip to San Antonio yielded much more than I imagined, and so for a months I posted little else. Second, the flu hit us, and I wasn’t upright long enough to sit in front of a computer to type it out. And then, all of a sudden, I knew why it was taking me so long to get this story together.

Ellis Brothers and Phil's Gift Shop

Early March: The first night I was in town I got in a bit early. Don’t ask me why–maybe I was bored and needed something to do–but I decided to go by Ellis Brothers and take a shot of the sign. I had gotten shots of this sign before. Twice before, in fact, but something compelled me to go by. I snapped off a few, kind of half-wondering what I was going to do with these shots. It was kind of a dull evening, and cold, and the first grouping of shots I got four years ago were vibrant and fantastic.

So I got creative:

Ellis Brothers, Binghamton, NY

I slipped in underneath the sign and used my long zoom lens to get this perspective, and as soon as I previewed it I knew this was the reason I was there. And then again, maybe it wasn’t…

Last week, Ellis Brothers Furniture, one of the oldest businesses in Binghamton, went through a terrible fire. It’s expected that the building will have to come down.

Do I have to mention the Little Voice? Listen to that Little Guy in your head, the one who tells you to do things that no one would care one way or the other whether you shrug them off or not. Ten times out of ten when the Little Guy says to take a picture and I do, I don’t regret it. Chances are, this was a last opportunity to get a shot of this fantastic old sign. I’ll try to keep you updated on this one.

Coca Cola Ghost Sign, Binghamton, NY

While I was at it that same night, I got this shot of a marvelous set of ghost signs that I had been meaning to get for a while. As you can see, it was still basically winter…