The Sign Shop

Martha Mount Applegate in the Shillito's sign shop.

 
For twenty years Grandma worked
in the sign shop of Shillito’s department store,
a gray-walled, windowless, dimly lit room
off a hallway none of the shoppers ever saw.
 
Grandma dressed attractively for her job,
with coiffed hair and earrings, sometimes
a string of pop beads or faux pearls. Each day
she tied an apron over her pretty outfit
 
to protect it from the ink. Once or twice a year
 we visited Grandma and her coworkers,
entering what seemed a secret doorway
just beyond the women’s lounge on the fifth floor,
 
down concrete stairs with pipe railings
and past storage rooms full of headless mannikins
and window dressing props. When we entered
the sign shop, everyone greeted us, and Grandma
 
smiled from where she sat in front of
a huge metal contraption.
 She was proud to demonstrate
what she did all day: She showed us
 
the order that stated what the sign should say,
then picked type from blackened trays before her.
She set the metal letters in reverse order
to spell “elas” or “sarb” or “sesuolb detnuocsid,”
 
then applied something that looked like pitch
to the type, positioned a piece of card stock,
and rolled a metal brayer over and back.
We marveled over the sign
 
she peeled off the type. On some days
 she went with us to lunch, but usually
she kept working. Our visits were brief
so she wouldn’t fall behind on her quota,
 
setting and printing one sign over
and over, then another and another
for all the merchandise in all the Shillito’s stores
in Cincinnati and beyond.

 

Nudge: Write about a job in which you or someone you knew had to do things old school. Describe the task and the results; if you like, comment on how differently things are done today.

 

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