At times Susan Mara Bregman felt as if she was tracking an endangered species. As she drove through New England taking pictures of neon signs, the variety that once welcomed weary travelers to motels or colorfully trumpeted the presence of ice cream stands, she found some had disappeared just after she learned about them.
“A lot of them are on the brink of extinction, and a lot are just gone,” Bregman said. “I’d be chasing down a sign and get there, and it was like, “Uh, am I in the right place? Where’s the sign?”
Bregman was traversing New England to find these disappearing retro masterpieces of commercialism for her book “New England Neon.” She started photographing the signs in the Boston area, eventually making her way across the state. Her New England road trip began when she decided to publish the book. She’s been selling magnets with her neon sign photos for years at the SoWa Market and was inspired to expand to book form based on the nostalgia and love that people had for vintage neon.
“There is such a strong emotional response to those signs,” she said. “People say, ‘Oh my God, my ex-husband and I had our first date at China Pearl.’ Or ‘My parents met at the Rosebud Diner.’ ”
Vintage New England neon signs are currently having a moment as an art installation on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, but we sat down with Bregman to find out what makes these neon signs so special and if they are actually facing extinction.
Q. What was your inspiration to start photographing old neon signs?
A. I think the Las Vegas Neon Museum had a huge impact on me. I’ve been there multiple times. The first time I went there it wasn’t even a museum. It was a junkyard with a chain link fence. There was broken glass and pigeons and cats living in the signs. But those old casino signs were magical. It was mesmerizing.
Q. Is there an area in New England that’s particularly abundant for finding vintage neon signs?
A. It’s not a single location, but Route 1 from Portsmouth to Bar Harbor is a rewarding drive for neon signs. There are great examples in Portsmouth, Kittery, Waldoboro, Freeport, Brunswick, Belfast, Damariscotta, Old Orchard Beach, Rockland, Ellsworth, and Bar Harbor.
Worcester has some wonderful signs, and Lowell and Springfield. The old industrial cities have a lot of signs.
Q. Which was your favorite?
A. Of course they’re all my favorites. But, that being said, I love the Weirs Beach sign on Lake Winnipesaukee. It’s been restored.
Q. You photograph signs for different kinds of businesses, but is there one category of business that has the best neon signs?
A. Theater marquees have the most opportunity. They have the most square footage so they can be big and bold and Art Deco and really wonderful. There are two others I love. Liquor stores always have great signs. They often say “Package Store,” or “Bottled Liquors.” It’s a very New England thing
The biggest surprise to me, and it sort of amuses me, is dry cleaners. They have the best signs. And I still don’t know why. I don’t really have a good working theory on that. Bigelow Cleaners in Newton Centre, and Queen Cleaners in Waltham both have signs with that great midcentury typography.
Q. What do you think are their chances of survival?
A. When a business gets sold and the new owners don’t necessarily appreciate the sign it’s upsetting because it means that sign will probably get taken down. Or you have people who are struggling, because it’s expensive to maintain. It’s not that neon can’t be fixed, it’s just that there aren’t as many people as there used to be who can fix it.
I’ve also talked to people that still have working or semi-working neon signs. They’re often second-, third-, or fourth-generation businesses. So the business has been in their family and they’ve had that neon sign for all those years. They feel connected to it. These places date from an era when everybody had neon and these are the people for whom maintaining their family business is important.
But I think what’s important is the preservation of the signs. That’s one of the things I try to get across in the book. I hope it’s not all going to only be in museums one day. That would be very sad.