Christopher Lawing is a walking encyclopedia — damn, Wikipedia's already taken — when it comes to signs. He can tell you the history and location of almost every sign in Charlotte, from Mr. K's Soft Ice Cream on South Boulevard to Open Kitchen on West Morehead Street.
Lawing's sign knowledge, along with his photography skills, led to his new book, Charlotte: The Signs of the Times. The 160-page volume features photos of well-known signs such as South 21, Dairy Queen and JJ's Red Hots, joined by shots of 102 more signs from the late '20s through present day. Each photo includes the sign's location, date of operation and status, whether saved in a private collection, lost to progress or still on display.
Seven years ago, Lawing, 25, chose to photograph Charlotte's iconic signs for a class project at Myers Park High School. It was an easy decision for him as an eighth-generation Charlottean to photograph signs for his project. He knew people would identify these places as important Charlotte landmarks.
"I grew up with all these Charlotte stories from my dad, from my grandfather," Lawing said. "I grew up with the heritage and the love of Charlotte."
Lawing graduated from North Carolina State University with a degree in industrial design and works at Jesse Brown's Outdoors as a sales associate.
I first met Lawing at his booth at Freedom Park's Festival in the Park. Later, we met at Park Road Shopping Center, an appropriate choice for this sign history expert.
Creative Loafing: Which sign did you shoot first?
Christopher Lawing: The first image was the Jesus Saves sign in Wesley Heights. That was torn down in the summer of 2010. It was on the roof of the Garr Auditorium. These were neon letters, just simple channel letters — that's where you have the metal casing and exposed neon. The congregation saved that sign and restored it. They have a location in South Charlotte where they have that sign displayed.
How do people react when they see your photos?
I've heard so many memories: "This is where I went on my first date," or "This is where we'd go every Sunday afternoon after church."
Here, at Park Road Shopping Center, they had a carousel and petting zoo in one of the empty store fronts. When people saw the Park Road Shopping Center sign, they said they remembered going to the petting zoo. It would have been the very first year, 1956.
What patterns did you notice?
Color and the funny shapes. I saw that a lot of the signs from the '20s through the '40s were focused on neon, bright colors, very unique shapes. You have to remember that this was in a day when everyone was putting up a sign. The signs in those days were hand painted or neon. It was more expensive, but if you wanted that business, you better put up a neon sign.
Why were signs important for business in Charlotte?
That was a burgeoning time for getting behind the wheel. Businesses were trying to draw customers in with color, big fonts and ostentatious signs that would get you off the road and into their parking lot.
Now, the focus and need has shifted, I don't think [a sign] is as required. I think people do it more through branding now, through menus, interior of a restaurant or a store versus all that energy being put into one sign out front.
I think people still take pride in their businesses, just in a different way than 50 years ago.
I would love to see the Ratcliffe's Flowers sign and a lot of these other signs that are in storage become part of our art history; like a monument on the side of the road. [I may want to] spearhead an awareness of this art history. Let's get this history back out there. One of the things people tell me is that Charlotte has no history. Yes, I understand we tear down a lot of it, but the history is still there. That's what I wanted to prove to people — it's all around us.
Charlotte: The Signs of the Times is available at Park Road Books, Paper SkyScraper, Coffey & Thompson, Jesse Brown's Outdoor and online for $34.99.