Towering above the city of Charlotte between 1964 and 2009, a giant letter J would illuminate from bottom to top, followed by an F, and then a G, as if
Towering above the city of Charlotte between 1964 and 2009, a giant letter J would illuminate from bottom to top, followed by an F, and then a G, as if three enormous coffee cups were filling up with light. Then, the letters would flash, the light would drain away, and the animated sign would commence performing its magic trick all over again. For more than four decades, the famed JFG Coffee billboard was arguably the most visible landmark in the Queen City.
“You knew you were home, or almost home, when you saw that sign,” Christopher S. Lawing says. On a Friday morning, Lawing is sipping not coffee, but hot chocolate at a Krispy Kreme near his home in Charlotte’s Cotswold neighborhood. He’s spent more than a decade photographing the city’s old signs, ranging from ones high in the skyline, like the JFG billboard, to beloved street-level advertising, like the elegant Art Deco sign touting Ratcliffe’s Flowers in the Uptown business district. The neon Ratcliffe’s sign has endured since the 1920s, even though its original 1929 building was moved in 2000, and the floral business changed its name in 1989 before leaving the retail trade entirely.
Lawing’s work, collected in the book Charlotte: The Signs of the Times, includes a picture of the sign that flickers above the doughnut shop where he’s sitting. In the photo, the familiar green-and-red logo is set against a blue sky, its red neon “HOT NOW” dormant, waiting to light up North Sharon Amity Road and entice customers to taste the warm and sugary treats inside. The JFG and Krispy Kreme images are the most famous signs in Lawing’s book, but the majority of them are for local businesses not known anywhere outside of Mecklenburg County.
“Krispy Kreme started in Winston-Salem,” he says. “But I wanted to pay homage to the most famous Krispy Kreme sign in Charlotte, which is at a location that is now nonexistent.” He would have preferred to document the original sign, which once stood at the intersection of Hawthorne Lane and Independence Boulevard — streets that still cross each other, but now as an overpass and an underpass rather than a corner with a traffic light.
At another now-nonexistent corner a few streets away stood Thompson’s Bootery & Bloomery, a shoe store that later expanded its product line to include lingerie, which was demonstrated by live models posing in its storefront display window. The scheme turned heads, and locals remember it well. “A lot of mothers said that was the longest stoplight in Charlotte for families with young children,” Lawing says, barely stifling laughter. “There were reports of a lot of wrecks at that intersection.”
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The 30-year-old Lawing is an eighth-generation Charlottean, and many of the photos that he takes come with warm family memories. For him, the Penguin Drive-In sign isn’t just a classic piece of design — it represents the Plaza Midwood restaurant that his family used to visit as a special treat, the place where he first tasted Cheerwine.
Lawing, who earned a merit badge in photography on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout, began documenting Charlotte’s signs in 2010 for a darkroom photography class that he was taking at Myers Park High School. His first photo was of the “JESUS SAVES” sign atop Garr Memorial Church — large but simple, a message designed to be seen by passengers in planes landing at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The following week, he photographed the sign standing at Amity Gardens Shopping Center, which in its hey-day was a garish monstrosity with blinking colored lights. Those two signs, Lawing says, “bookended what became the project.”
After that, he sought to capture any Charlotte sign that had graphic interest or historic value, including old ones that were no longer in front of the businesses they once advertised. In 2014, while working a summer job at the Levine Museum of the New South, Lawing was in the storage facility one day and spotted a distinctive rendition of a chef’s toque sticking out from a pile of local artifacts. “I instantly knew that it was the Athens Restaurant sign,” he says, referring to the popular diner that survived for roughly four decades before closing in 2007. When the Levine asked Lawing to come back the following summer, he cut a deal with his bosses: He’d work for the museum if he could do a photo session with the Athens sign.
Lawing self-published his Signs of the Times in 2017, learning about International Standard Book Numbers, or ISBNs, along the way. The book has now gone into three printings, and Lawing does all the grunt work himself. “When I get a shipment of books, they go to my house,” he says. “I’m the warehouse.”
The project put Lawing at the center of a tight-knit community that cherishes old signs and wants to preserve them. The problem with keeping physical artifacts instead of just taking pictures, he says, is that “signs are huge; signs are heavy. Where do you store them?” To root out the old signs, Lawing says that he makes use of a “generous network of friends, family, and sign companies.”
For some photos, he’s forced to use a single letter to represent a sign from the past. Take Park-N-Shop on Wilkinson Boulevard, once locally famous for its gimmicks. (“Come out in your pajamas, and get watermelons for 5 cents,” as Lawing recalls.) When Park-N-Shop’s building was demolished, the crew used a blowtorch to remove the letters from its sign. Each member of the family that owned the place kept one letter, and Lawing received two — the P and the K — as totems of marketing history.
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If you ask Lawing why he feels compelled to photograph and preserve Charlotte’s signs, he has several answers. He’ll tell you about how his work makes the city’s history accessible instead of being boring boilerplate in a textbook. He’ll share his enthusiasm for neon artisans: “Every neon sign is made by a person,” he says. “Someone has to bend that glass.” And he’ll cite the value of old signs in encouraging tourism, like when people make trips to Charlotte just to see the rare vintage rooftop image of an Inuit atop a Dairy Queen.
What really moves Lawing, though, is when his photographs help other people dig up their own memories, each sign pointing to a personal trove of nostalgia for a favorite restaurant or business. “I’ve seen people cry when looking through my book,” he says, slightly astonished. “I knew I had my personal stories and that my family had their connections, but I don’t think I realized how deep it went for other people.”
For Lawing, the old Herrin Brothers Coal & Ice sign on 36th Street was notable because of its vintage logo featuring a red devil with a pitchfork. A member of his church had a different reaction to the sign. She told Lawing that she’d grown up in North Charlotte when it was a mill village. “On her way home in the summer,” Lawing says, “she would stop at the Herrin Brothers Coal & Ice, and there was a bell in the business that she could ring, and they would give the kids scraps of ice. This image transported her back to that memory that was 50 or 60 years ago — she was back there as a little girl.”
One Charlotte native shared with Lawing a particularly moving story. He said that when he and his wife got married, he couldn’t afford an engagement ring, much less a wedding present, but he found an ingenious gift high above the city streets. After the two were wed, his bride’s initials became JFG — and so, whenever the couple passed by the old JFG billboard on Interstate 277, he told her that the sign was his gift to her.