Sign o' the Times
The origins of the neon OPEN sign.
The OPEN sign's popularity tracks that of the strip mall. Immigrant shopkeepers and boomer entrepreneurs needed to let passers-by know they were ready for business. Fifty years ago they'd have scrawled OPEN on a shirt cardboard and perched it to catch the eye of a passing pedestrian. But who window shops anymore, except at 35 mph, through a window set in the frame of a vehicle?
The lingua franca of commercial America has done what Esperanto could not: achieve universality. In Vienna, a few neon signs do growl GEOFFNET. But more often the word is OPEN--evidence, says one neon connoisseur there, of continental affection for Americana, along with a changing European culture. "In Austria, there used to be customs about when businesses could operate," says Dusty Sprengnagel, who owns a shop called Neon Line and whose book on neon will reach store shelves later this year. "Most shops closed at 6 p.m. weekdays and on Saturday were not open or were open only until noon. We all knew the rules, so no one needed an OPEN sign. But things have changed. Shops may be open later, they may be open all of Saturday. The OPEN sign is not pretty, but it provides the information you need."
With OPEN going platinum, why not a neon CLOSED sign? Everbrite tried one, but it tanked. An OPEN sign is a binary beast, it seemed--if a store owner turned it off, the message was implicit. You couldn't say the same of a CLOSED sign--if it was off, would that mean proprietors lurking in the back waiting to make a sale?
An unlit OPEN has a fearsome power of its own. "We get calls from people whose signs aren't working. They're desperate," Everbrite's Jacobs says. "A guy told me, 'I run a video store. I broke my sign washing my window. I've got to have another one right away, because my competitor on the next block has a neon OPEN sign. People can see that he's open, but with my sign broken they think I'm closed.' "
Michael Dolan's work has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and the Washington City Paper.