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Signs of distinction

In a little shop on North Fifth Street, in what long ago was an auto body shop but for many decades has been Display Industries, 75-year-old Jim Anderson tinkers daily with metal, plastic and neon glass tubing.

In a little shop on North Fifth Street, in what long ago was an auto body shop but for many decades has been Display Industries, 75-year-old Jim Anderson tinkers daily with metal, plastic and neon glass tubing.

People call on the telephone and ask for Jim Anderson, the sign maker. "No, he isn't here," Jim says, because he knows they're looking for his son, also named Jim, who is taking over for his father, a sign maker for a half-century.

"I'm in here just for the fun of it now," the elder Jim says, his smile certifying that it's true. Making signs is fun.

"It's what I like to do. I've built a lot of them in my day. No two signs are alike, you know, unless you're working for a big company" and mass-producing golden arches or curly-topped ice cream cones.

Not far from Anderson's shop, a tall, sporty cowboy boot, electrified to a bright bronze, rides the night horizon. Since the mid-1950s, the boot has meant "the Boot," the Bronze Boot Steak House and Lounge: food, drink and conviviality. It also means that you are in not just any town.

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A short distance down North Washington Street, a neon martini glass atop the El Roco beckons -- and also proclaims "Grand Forks."

Neon has come and gone, come again and gone again, along with sign styles and placement rules and technology. Many of the bright lights of this not-so-big city are LED lights now, light-emitting diodes, and many are as homogenous as the Big Box stores and fast food joints they advertise. The Kmart sign here could be in Boulder, Colo., the McDonald's signs in Vienna.

But some signs of the city do say "Grand Forks," just as the big "Walley's" sign over a grocery up north welcomes you to Grafton, N.D., and the dominant Broadway movie marquee an hour's drive south of Grand Forks says Fargo (obviously and big-letter literally, "Fargo").

Even as many people in Grand Forks lament the loss of Smiley, the beaming, always-up visage of the old water tower demolished last year, anyone who has spent any time in town can conjure signs of the city:

The Red Pepper. Rydell. The Kegs. Hugo's. Happy Harry's. Red Ray Lanes, which used to mark the city's southern frontier.

OK, you can spot a Hugo's sign in Crookston or Jamestown, N.D., and just about any traveling Manitoban can give you directions to a Happy Harry's outside Grand Forks.

But Grand Forks gave those signs a start, and they still give Grand Forks identity.

Neon: It's a gas

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Visit a bigger city more than a few times and you'll come to know it partly by its signs, not just because they help with directions but because they are the city and help to define it, as the bright lights of Times Square and Broadway help to define New York.

Signs can overwhelm a city, too, of course, and cheapen the urban experience. Think Las Vegas, and for many the negative adjectives stack up: garish, gaudy, lurid, cheesy, vulgar, tacky.

In "Let There Be Neon," a 1979 celebration of the bendable gas, author Rudi Stern said that neon in the U.S. "meant progress, vitality, urban excitement. On highways, in center cities, along desolate stretches of our landscape, neon was the electric pen with which we signed our identity with products, services and attractions."

Neon lost some of its luster after World War II. Sign makers found cheaper, more convenient methods and materials, including molded plastic and glass backlit by fluorescent lights, just as people came to see neon as loud and embarrassing.

But in the 1970s, neon gained new status as antique and art form, and, as an advertising medium, its bigness and loudness found favor again. Landmark neon signs became a place to meet friends or get your bearings -- or remind you that you live in a city. You miss them when they go, or you go. (Do you know Minneapolis? Do you remember the big, bright Grain Belt bottle cap above Hennepin Avenue by the river?)

In 2007, urban researchers in Europe recruited ordinary people to compile a "visual inventory" of signs in four cities: London, Barcelona, Berlin and Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria.

"Young people, guided by professional artists, will explore the signs of their cities and document their urban life at the same time," they said.

Some of their work, the signs of their cities, can be seen here: www.citipix.net .

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'Meet me by the big milk carton'

In Grand Forks, Jim Anderson worked on the El Roco's neon cocktail, bubbly and accented by a generous lime squeeze.

"It was originally put up in the 1960s, and I helped finish it," he said. "It's a metal sign with neon and glass. It originally rotated, but it's been welded."

Display Industries isn't the biggest sign maker in town, and bigger competitors can send sales people out to beat the bushes.

"There's been as many as five working here," Anderson said, looking around the small shop, which has the ambience of a bar in a body shop, or maybe the other way around.

"Now, it's two people," he said. And, as he said before, he's just there now for the fun of it.

But Anderson has "put up John Deere signs from Valley City to northwestern Minnesota." He has worked on the tilting milk carton atop the Valley Dairy on South Washington Street, and he has stepped across the river to do neon for Whitey's, "inside and outside."

He was summoned to Wisconsin once for a week of sign work.

"It was like a vacation," he said.

Anderson has built signs for Charlie Brown's, for Rite Spot Liquors and for WDAZ-TV, all unique to Grand Forks. "I'm proud of that one," he said of the TV studio sign with its 8-foot-tall letters, which he worked on about a decade ago. "It's still good to this day."

He also is proud of a sign he did for the Kem Temple Shrine building in Grand Forks, featuring a man leading a girl on crutches.

"It's a small sign," he said. "You have to look to see it. But I put a lot of work into it. I like that sign."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

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