Few people can drive down Savannah’s main thoroughfares and see their life’s work every day, but James Beasley Sr. can and does.
Beasley, 69, is the owner of SignMart, maker of hundreds of business signs in the area, from Carey Hilliard’s to Parker’s convenience stores to SCAD’s Trustees Theater’s iconic neon marquee.
“We got a name, we’ve been here forever; I know everybody, and they know me,” said Beasley matter-of-factly. “I’m really proud of the work we’ve done in Savannah over the years.”
The company is celebrating its 50th year in business and looking forward to many more. Just as businesses come and go, so do the signs that mark their location — and that keeps Beasley busy.
He got his start working as a part-time helper to the original owner of SignMart, Noel Bullock, in 1965. By 1972, Beasley was fulltime and had learned every facet of the sign business under Bullock’s tutelage.
Because none of Bullock’s five daughters showed interest in taking over the business, he asked Beasley whether he would like to carry on the work. In 2000, Beasley bought SignMart Inc., allowing Bullock to retire.
Now, Beasley can look back and give an oral history of Savannah’s business corridors, especially along southside. An old ledger he keeps catalogues many of SignMart’s clients over the years and the changing aesthetic of their signs.
While neon was the height of sophistication in the ‘40s and ‘50s, it went out of fashion in the ‘70s, only to recently celebrate a sort of resurgence. SignMart used to make the neon signs in house, Beasley said, but now they import them from Columbia, S.C., because they are too costly to maintain.
He said the biggest trend in signage is the dominance of LEDs, short for light-emitting diodes, that help businesses market more products through electronic messages.
SignMart also does a lot of plastic face signs, channel lettering and
directory boards, among other products.
Another force that’s shaped the sign industry is governmental permitting. Beasley said most people are under the impression you can get a sign the next day, when really permitting comes first in most cases. And because of Hurricane Hugo, outdoor signs are now required to have a 135-mph wind load.
Much as Beasley began as a part-time helper, his son, Bubba Beasley Jr., doesn’t remember a time he wasn’t in the shop.
“I started out sweeping floors and cutting metal,” said Beasley Jr., 48. “I kind of knew all along it was what I was going to do.”
One of their most memorable projects was the renovation of the SCAD Trustees Theater neon marquee on Broughton Street. The sign had been left to rust with most of the neon fixtures underneath busted and broken.
The father and son team removed the old W-E-I-S letters and replaced them with S-C-A-D, and rebuilt the entire sign that now lights up the entire block, red and white, during the evening.
“We made new letters and put them back on there, new neon — yeah, it was a project,” said Bubba.
Beasley Sr. estimates they put in 600-plus hours to complete that one.
While SignMart could easily stay busy with its local accounts, they also count on national ones such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Marriott and General Motors.
A corkboard in SignMart’s office that catalogues various jobs is cluttered with pins, the majority under southside and Pooler. The company recently put in about 19 signs at the new Tanger Outlets in Pooler, mostly individual channel lettering with LED backlights.
Beasley said he remembers when he used to draw and trace sign designs from the phone book, a process largely obsolete now thanks to the computer programs they use.
One of Beasley’s most loyal customers has been Greg Parker, CEO of Parker’s convenience stores. All of the company’s signs, from the gas pump prices to the signs for Chewy Ice, are the work of Beasley’s nine-person team.
Bubba Beasley said what he enjoys most is the variety of work.
“The best thing about this job is it’s not the same thing every day,” said Bubba. “You’re always in a different place, doing something different.”
Like some people count sheep at night, Beasley counts the signs he’s had a hand in building.
“Sometimes I lay in the bed and think about, starting at Abercorn at 204 and 95 and go all the way back downtown, counting in my head all the signs we worked on, took down or rebuilt,” he said.
ON THE WEB
For more pictures of Beasley’s signs, check out savannahnow.com
Where: 784 King George Blvd., Savannah