For years, hand-painted wooden signs filled Billy Crosby’s basement — and sometimes other rooms in his Concord home as well, though periodically, his wife would plead with him to clean them up.
Crosby, 62, has been the town’s preeminent sign painter for over 40 years, and when the boutiques, coffee shops, restaurants, and offices no longer need a sign he made for them — whether because they are closing their doors or merely upgrading to newer signage — he typically asks to keep the castoffs.
But this spring, the signs long stored in Crosby’s basement found a new home in the halls of Bradford Mill, the office and arts complex that houses his professional workshop. Inspired by Bradford Mill proprietor John Boynton, Crosby has established the Concord Sign Museum, turning the walls into a visual array of businesses past and logos outgrown.
There’s the oversized black-and-white sign for the West Concord Supermarket, a grocery mainstay that gave way several years ago to a trendy restaurant. Opposite that is the weather-beaten Concord Academy sign that once hung over the school’s main gate, now replaced by a more eye-catching dark green version also painted by Crosby. On another wall is the sign for Mary Curtis, a long-gone gift shop popular with browsers in the 1970s, and the one for the Country Store, where local children in decades past filled up on penny candy.
In the corner is an old Concord Museum sign — the museum is still thriving but has upgraded to a more contemporary placard.
Sign painting is largely a word-of-mouth business, Crosby said. When a new place is opening in town, its proprietors are likely to ask neighboring businesses who created their signage. Not only does Crosby have a reputation for fine work and tasteful artistry: He also is intimately acquainted with the exacting standards of Concord’s Historical Commission, which has final say over what can and cannot hang over the doors in the town center, including size, color, and materials.
Crosby discovered sign making as a teen, working at his father’s gas station on Route 2. Once a year or so, his father would hire a car detailer to do lettering on the exterior of his trucks. Always far more interested in art than his family’s automotive trade, Crosby recognized that this was a potentially practical application of his talents. He’d go into the local junkyard and practice lettering the cars and trucks no one wanted. His first paid commission was as a freshman in high school, for New London Style Pizza on Thoreau Street.
“My father knew the guys who owned it,” he said.
To John Boynton, Crosby’s landlord at Bradford Mill, the signs evoke something beyond just sentimental reminiscences. “The businesses that line Main Street are part of our community,” Boynton said. “But when they close, they don’t leave any reminder of what came before. Concord is so well-versed in its own literary, social, and political history. But how do we preserve our commercial history?”
Crosby began the museum by hanging his own personal collection of signs, but as word of the endeavor spread in recent weeks, more signs emerged, some on loan from former shop owners. When Boynton mentioned the project at a recent Concord Business Partnership meeting, several local businesspeople said they had artifacts to contribute.
The concept goes beyond the visuals of signs hanging on walls. Now under construction is an interactive website that will allow visitors to post their own memories and anecdotes of the long-gone businesses represented by the signs.
Ultimately, said Boynton, they are developing a commercial history of Concord — one that reflects how society evolves. “Back in the 19th century when Main Street was called the Milldam, there was a musket maker and a clockmaker,” Boynton said. “Until recently, West Concord had a thriving 5 & 10. In the 1950s, there were several car dealerships in Concord Center. Now there are none, but someday we might have a flying saucer dealership. Maybe a future generation of kids will see the sign for the Concord Toy Shop and say, ‘People used to buy toys in person?’
“The businesses in a town at any given time mirror the needs and wants of the community, and the signs are the faces of those businesses.”
The Concord Sign Museum is located in the Bradford Mill at 43 Bradford St., West Concord. Hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, go to www.concordsignmuseum.com.
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.