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Signs of the times

Charles P. Pierce rediscovers the Worcester company his grandfather started with 100 years ago, finding both a city and a family business altered by the ages.

By Charles P. Pierce
March 21, 2010

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The box is black and squarish and mottled with paint. A dab of blue on the side, a daub of yellow on the lid. It sits on a battered stool in a second-floor bathroom. The stool is similarly flecked and freckled, long tongues of color running down its legs. If you open the box, a little tray extends out toward you, so that the box becomes two boxes. There are paintbrushes in the tray, old and slender and stiff as railroad spikes from the ends of their wooden handles to the tips of their bristles. The brushes have not been disturbed in this tray for a very long time. There is dust on them, and when you pick one up, it leaves its outline in the dust on the tray below.

This was my grandfather’s paint box, the one he took to work every day at the Macey Sign Co., at 149 Commercial Street in the city of Worcester, until his death in 1965. Charles F. Gibbons was a sign painter all his life, beginning in 1910, when he went to work for the Paige Co., which, according to various city directories, was located on Norwich Street. Macey Sign doesn’t appear in listings until 1916. My grandfather and W.E. Sullivan apparently bought out the Paige Co. upon the demise of its owner, J. S. Boyle, who died the day after Christmas in 1914. But my grandfather always dated his work for Macey’s from 1910, which makes this the 100th anniversary of his company. My grandfather worked the rest of his life on Commercial Street. He even died there.

And this office, with the old paint box on the stool in the second-floor bathroom, in what once was a residence on Mason Street in the city’s Main South area, is my grandfather’s company. Still. Today. “You look like him in the eyes,” says George Kachajian, the energetic 77-year-old who bought Macey’s upon my grandfather’s death after having worked there for almost a decade and moved it to this spot shortly thereafter. He takes me around the place, showing me the likeness of Clark Gable that my grandfather painted for the lobby of the old Loews Poli Palace Theater downtown on the occasion of the Worcester premiere of Gone With the Wind. (His Vivien Leigh apparently is lost to history.) But my eye moves to a clock-shaped sign that hangs on the wall above one of the workbenches in the front of the store. “Macey Sign Co.,” it says, “Where excellence is a standard.”

“I added that,” George tells me.

I remember this sign. It hung on the worn stairs leading up to my grandfather’s shop on Commercial Street. There was a huge, dark workroom in the back with long benches and a vintage Coca-Cola sign on which they used to hang patterns for painting. The Coca-Cola sign is now in the back of George’s shop. Once, when I was very small, I went to visit the shop and dumped paint all over some work in progress. It was the only time my grandfather ever yelled at me. (He yelled at the Red Sox every Sunday.) They did name me after him, after all.

And I remember that my grandfather seemed to know everyone else who worked in a two-block radius of the shop on Commercial Street. He knew the cops and the firemen, and the merchants who owned Central Supply across the street and Washburn-Garfield around the corner. He knew Billy Maloney, who ran a parking lot next to the shop where my grandfather parked every day. He did a job painting a sign on the wall of Frank Cotter’s saddle store down the block, wherein worked a high school kid who would one day marry my grandfather’s only daughter. And he knew Ernest Ryan, who ran Sherwood’s Diner up on Foster Street, where everybody came for lunch every day, so popular a place that there was a fire department call box on the wall. It was Ernest Ryan who called my house every year before Christmas, pretending to be Santa Claus and egging me on to ask my grandfather for expensive toys.

This was something I learned this year, when Ernest’s daughter, Virginia Ryan, got in touch with me and told me that Macey’s still existed and that my grandfather’s files and his paint box were in the little shop on Mason Street. I also learned what the diner’s name was. To me, according to family lore, it was just always Ernest Ryan’s Lunch Car. Everything was a family business then, and every family knew every family’s business. She thought I might want to know about Macey’s because, somehow, I’m still part of that old neighborhood that exists now in only what people remember about it. Even the signs are nothing but a memory.

“The police captains used to come in the diner to find out what was going on in their own precincts,” Virginia Ryan says. Years later, bright children from business schools would call this an entrepreneurial economy. Here, it was just family business, and the business of families.

“When you put up your own money and operate your own business,” the US Small Business Administration says in one of its publications, “you prize your independence. It’s MY business, you can tell yourself, in good times and bad.”

According to an analysis by Joseph Astrachan, a professor at Kennesaw State University’s Coles College of Business in Kennesaw, Georgia, and his colleague Melissa Carey Shanker, family-owned businesses account for 62 percent of all employment in the United States and half of the gross domestic product, despite the widely held perception that they have been ground up by large corporations. These numbers, which originally appeared in the journal Family Business Review, can be interpreted different ways; technically, for example, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. is a family-controlled business. And, says Astrachan, so are about a third of the businesses in the Fortune 500. Nevertheless, there are still family businesses of all sizes marbled throughout the economy. And back when my grandfather was starting out, Worcester was a prime location for them.

On October 7, 1828, the first boat docked in Worcester, marking the opening of the Blackstone Canal between Worcester and Providence. The city’s manufacturing base boomed. But it did so in an interesting way. Local entrepreneurs would rent space, and gain access to steam and water power, from men who owned large buildings divided into individual spaces. One of these buildings, owned by William T. Merrifield, stood near the spot along Commercial Street where Macey Sign Co. later would come to land.

“It was like a modern biotech lab, an innovation center,” explains William Wallace, the director of the Worcester Historical Museum. “You could go to Merrifield and say, ‘I have this great idea. I’m going to ask other people to make the components, and all I need is 12 feet of counter space for two guys to assemble these puppies. I don’t need much space, and I need a little power.’ ” This arrangement led to a diversity of businesses that formed the engine of the city’s growth. The Wyman-Gordon Co., for example, started out making components for loom shuttles and eventually manufactured engines for B-52 bombers, which is why we all were ducking under our desks in elementary school during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

All of these small businesses needed the help of other small businesses, like sign-painting companies. They needed signs on the brick walls outside and gold-leaf lettering on the door. That was how, one day in 1957, after going to art school on the GI Bill as a Korean War veteran, George Kachajian walked up the stairs at 149 Commercial Street and asked my grandfather for a job.

“A guy named Will Taylor was going to retire,” recalls George. “He was 65 years old, and when he left, I started working part time.” George’s wife, Dolly, was pregnant with their first child, and one day my grandfather spotted her down in Billy Maloney’s parking lot. “ ‘Hey, George,’ he says to me. ‘Look at that woman down there. She’s gonna have the baby right in the parking lot.’ I told him, ‘That’s my wife, Charlie.’ And then he told your grandmother and your mother, and that’s how I got my first raise.” It was 50 cents, up to $1.75 an hour.

My grandfather came to count on George. “ ‘You’re Armenian,’ he says to me. ‘I can trust you.’ ” He gave George the key to open the shop in the morning. My grandfather would arrive at about 10:30 every day. George could hear him coming up the stairs from the street, wheezing through what remained of his lungs behind the four packs of unfiltered Camels he smoked each day.

The files are buried under an accumulation of rubble on the second floor. Now, in a paperless economy, the onionskin typing paper makes them seem like brittle documents unearthed at Q’umran. They are the history of the firm, and of my grandfather’s life’s work, and George Kachajian’s, too. There is a beautiful penciled drawing of a sign for the First Universalist Church, lost years ago to downtown development, done by Will Taylor, the man George replaced. (There are other documents suggesting that the Universalists were somewhat casual in paying their bills.) There is an extended correspondence between my grandfather and the people at the General Foods plant in Orange, for whom Macey’s did so much work that, when plant manager Clarence Gates died in 1959, my grandfather wrote a note of condolence to the company’s president, E. M. Robbins, saying of the late Mr. Gates that they “have had many pleasant memories over many years.”

George worked all sorts of jobs, learning as he went. The first time he put 23-karat gold-leaf lettering on a window, the charwoman came that night and wiped it off, which meant George had to do it again, and my grandfather wasn’t happy. “Goddammit, George,” my grandfather fumed, “you gotta leave a note.” He got very good at it, though, and he would come home after work with the gold sparkling in his hair. He sprayed the aluminum for truck signs. One day, he was standing around with my grandfather, and they were talking to Billy Maloney, who owned the parking lot downstairs.

“Bill says, ‘Charlie, when you going to retire?’ ” George recalls. “And Charlie says, ‘I think George is going to be taking it over when I do.’ ”

In November 1965, George was working at the long bench at the back of the shop. He was doing some lettering on glass, part of a job for a local bank. It was nearly the end of the day, and he was looking out the window, down into Billy Maloney’s parking lot. He saw Charlie in the big round gray Dodge that he drove to work every day. The dusk was coming on as shadows between the other buildings. It looked like Charlie was just sitting there in his car. The phone rang. It was Billy Maloney calling from down in his little ticket booth. Charlie wasn’t moving.

“Billy called me,” George remembers, “and I came down, and there was a guy named Hartley, a really big guy who worked for Macey’s putting the signs up. And we took Charlie up to City Hospital.” It was too late. The unfiltered Camels -- four packs a day for George couldn’t guess how long -- had done their work. Charlie Gibbons was dead of a heart attack at 66. Billy Maloney stayed behind and called the family from his booth. When I got home that day from sixth grade, my father was already there, which was unusual. My mother was in a corner, smoking, and looking as though she’d been hit on the head with a bowling pin.

“Gib went to heaven,” my father said.

“He died?” I replied.

There are unmistakable milestones in the life of every child. I think impatience with euphemism is a very underrated one.

“I definitely remember how upset George was,” Dolly recalls. “He come home from work that night devastated.”

George also was worried. He had worked at Macey’s for 10 years. A couple years earlier, in front of Billy Maloney, Charlie had said that he would have the company after Charlie retired. But now Charlie was dead, and the company was in the hands of his widow and his daughter, my mother. Neither of them had shown any interest in keeping the company alive. George had just bought a house up on Tahanto Road, and he had a wife and two children, and one more on the way. All he had of the company was a dead man’s promise and a parking-lot owner for a witness.

“Your mother, Pat, said she was going to close up Macey Sign,” George says. “I said, ‘I been here a long time. What am I going to do? I didn’t get but one raise that whole time. I can’t afford that.’ ”

He told my mother that her father had promised him the business and that he had a witness. Then he tried to sell Dolly on the notion of buying the company. “George come home,” Dolly says, “and he says to me, ‘I’m going to buy Macey Sign.’ I said, ‘What are you, crazy?’ I thought about it all night, and I said the next morning, ‘OK, if that’s what you want to do.’ ”

George paid about $1,000 for the business, the price probably an indication of the times and of how much my mother and grandmother wanted to be rid of it. But the wrangling essentially shut down the company for nearly a month. Almost immediately, George Lamotte, who owned the plumbing supply business on the first floor as well as the building that housed Macey Sign, jacked up George Kachajian’s rent to the point where George, after a few months, didn’t want to stay. So, in 1966, Macey Sign Co. abandoned 149 Commercial Street and the neighborhood in which it had been located for decades, and it moved to property his parents owned on Mason Street near Park Avenue.

George made a go of it as the materials changed from paint and gold leaf to vinyl lettering, and the design tools from pencil and paper to computer graphics. In 1986, George landed a contract to paint six trucks for the Age Center of Worcester. At about the same time, a man came into the store and offered to sell him some used graphics computers. “He showed us how we could do it,” says George. “Then, he says, ‘You want to buy the machines?’ ”

The problem was that, like all computers, you needed to be able to type to run them, and George never had learned. On the other hand, Dolly had learned at Commerce High School, and that kind of typing is like riding a bicycle or swimming. You never forgot how to do it. So in addition to keeping the books, Dolly became the first computer technician in the history of the Macey Sign Co.

“For 20 years,” George says, “I was the computer.”

Long ago, but not long before he died, my grandfather was chatting with George Kachajian in the shop on Commercial Street. He was worried about the future. George, he told him, the city’s going to take this place and it’s going to build the arena right here. “That’s what he called it,” George remembers. “He called it ‘the arena.’ ” Redevelopment plans weren’t set yet, but as far as George knows, my grandfather, who was wired into city politics a bit, was guessing. The city did come and take the land and the buildings, and it built the arena, now the DCU Center, but not without two bloody referendums and endless construction delays. It opened in 1982 with a concert by Frank Sinatra. George and Dolly got tickets because a relative worked in the building.

It changed the area around Commercial Street forever. It stopped being a place where people made things and it became a place where people served things. You can see it in the signs. Down the street, what was Cotter’s Saddlery -- where my father worked as a boy, not knowing that his future father-in-law was working up the street -- is now a club named The Fifth Amendment. The sign that Macey’s painted for Cotter’s on the bricks of the south wall is covered by new construction. What was the firehouse now is home to an Italian restaurant and a wine, cheese, and chocolate bar. There’s another Italian joint taking up half of what used to be Central Supply. The other half is a parking garage. There’s a satellite campus of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy across the street from where Ernest Ryan’s Lunch Car used to be. One family business that remains is Moynagh’s, a dark bar owned by the man who taught me English in high school.

There are no signs left of the old Macey Sign Co., not even the signs themselves. Central Supply may have a couple of old ones tucked away in a warehouse. They exist only in pictures -- of the sign on the wall at Cotter’s, or of the old First Universalist Church, the one that had to move because of development downtown -- and in memories, of a guy who painted so many of them, and of a boy who wandered upstairs one day and spilled the paint. Where are the signs that the place was ever here, I wonder on this afternoon. Where are the signs of the signs? Where are the signs of its times?

There is a monster-truck show going on inside the DCU Center, the sound of the engines plainly audible up and down Commercial Street. Where the Macey Sign Co. once was there is now a staircase, leading down from Door 18 of the arena. (Billy Maloney’s parking lot, where my grandfather dropped dead, is a loading dock.) A man and his son are sitting on the steps, eating popcorn. Pedestrians begin to cross the street. Another engine roars from inside the building, and the pedestrians jump back before they realize that nothing is coming down the street, that they are dodging nothing but phantoms.

George Kachajian is having breakfast at a place called The Pickle Barrel, a banged-up joint not far from his sign company. It’s a little after 10 in the morning, and the place is full of older folks and lost souls and not a few people having earnest conversations with the morning air. George knows the owners. Not far away is a new nail salon for which Macey’s did the red-lettered sign over the facade. “They’re just getting started over there,” George says. “They came in because they knew somebody we did some work for.” Below the name of the salon is the legend “Macey Sign Co.”

George believes in signing his signs, no matter how large or small they are. Once, his grandchildren got a chance to meet a couple of the New England Patriots in Worcester, and they asked him to make them placards to hold so that the players would notice them in the crowd. George lettered them each a sign. Then he took their picture and hung the pictures in his store. The signs are neatly lettered and the kids are smiling, and at the bottom of each of the placards it says, “Macey Sign Co.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” George says. The business will die with his generation. His daughters have their own lives away from Worcester, and his son is unable to work. So George works. “Keep swinging,” he tells everyone with a grin, and he celebrates, in his own way, the company that’s now into its 100th year as he has come to reckon it, even if the street directories tell a more ambivalent history. He walks amid the ghosts, his and mine, even though I never knew they were there, much less that the company that birthed them still was. He sees my grandfather’s Clark Gable, smiling not a little lasciviously, from the door to the second floor, above which hangs the picture of the young Charlie Gibbons with all the other sign painters. He sees the old Macey logo that hung on the stairs leading to the shop on the second floor, the one that Charlie used to pass, wheezing like a freight train, every morning around 10:30, until the unfiltered Camels got him on a gray day running toward winter.

There are little, stubborn signs of entrepreneurship all around The Pickle Barrel. The nail salon is one of them. So is the meat market across the street. So is another small sign company trying to make a go of it. George has got an eye on the owner and doesn’t quite know how the guy makes his rent, but is impressed with how hard he works. A new generation is slowly and painfully cranking the great piecemeal economy of Worcester into another century.

My mother pretty plainly didn’t want the business. I am happy to have discovered that somebody who loved it really did. Art in the blood, Sherlock Holmes once warned Dr. Watson, is liable to take the strangest forms. I cannot draw a straight line. I would have been no help at all putting the gold leaf on the doors. My Clark Gable likely would have come out looking like a space alien. But I can tell stories, and that may be in many ways the same thing. It is all in some way about signs, after all. Signs, and wonders.

Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer at the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at cpierce@globe.com.

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