Friday, January 22, 2016

The Storefronts of Main Street

Written by Mathew Shoen, Associate Architectural Historian at Preservation Studios

Sometimes you come across information and facts that you had no reason to collect, but ended up learning regardless. This was the case when I offered to take Martin Treu’s book Signs, Streets, and Storefronts and craft cliff notes of it's biggest themes. I come from a rural town so businesses weren't common, or they were farms and herds of milk cows gave a quick explanation of the sort of work that went on.

Moving to Buffalo I still had a tendency not to notice signage and the way it impacts our streets. Treu’s book changed that and now it seems like I can’t walk down the block without being struck by the different signs and styles along my section of Main Street. 

Take for example Just Pizza near Main and West Northrup Street. According to Treu, Just Pizza with its standardized logo, and bright wraparound awning is an example of the commercialized storefronts which developed in the 1950s as large corporate entities began to command more and more market space. Companies sought to create an effective branding tool and began to strip out the individualism which had once been a trademark of advertising with local store owners commissioning unique graphics and signs to attract people into their establishment. As entities like Just Pizza expanded they did so through homogenous designs, exchanging more memorable signs for what amounted to a cattle brand stamped across the façade of their buildings. All over Main Street you can see this carried out. The Mobil logo plastered above the gas pumps at Franks Convenience Store, the wraparound logo of IconZ hair studio, and the slim crimson lettering of Jim’s Steakout all follow the branding aesthetic of Just Pizza in a way which, to the untrained eye, blends quickly into the background, but after reading Treu’s book I notice it constantly.

Older storefront aesthetics can be seen on a number of other Main Street buildings. One of my favorites is the 1940s inspired storefront of Talking Leaves… Books. Though established in 1971, Talking Leaves has sensibilities pulled from the 1940s and even earlier. Take for example its banner painted just above the glass storefront. In traditional sign circles this area is known as the fascia. Prior to the 1870s, when buildings became wildly ornate and finding space for advertisement became challenging, commercial buildings devoted a portion of the façade just above the entryway to advertisement, this was the fascia. The fascia left little room for eye-grabbing imagery, usually the name and slogan of the business sufficed. Talking Leaves follows this principle devoting the space to its name, a small leaf graphic (playing on the leaf borders which run between the storefronts) and some minor facts about their products. It is a simple system, augmented by a hanging sign which became popular among merchants looking to extend their advertising onto the sidewalk.

Below the fascia, right on the street, one can see the 1940s contribution to Talking Leaves. Ask yourself, why are glass storefronts clear, why is there no backdrop encasing the objects we see in the display window? The answer, clear storefronts let a person see straight into the store and were created in response to the Great Depression. With spending at a historic low advertisers were desperate to boost commerce and someone came up with the idea of removing display window backdrops in storefronts. Doing this allowed people on the sidewalk to see right into a store, observe the products and business transactions within, and thereby be tempted to go inside. It’s striking how this simple alteration really changes the feeling of a store, opening it up with natural lighting and tempting passerby's walking home from work. Also, opening the display window allows the cat in Talking Leaves a very pleasant place to sun itself. 

These are just a few of the really noteworthy storefront types I found on Main Street, but Buffalo is littered with stores and signs that give hints to the city's commercial past and the evolution of signage and advertisement throughout Buffalo. Look around, you'll be surprised what's out there and the snippet of storytelling it offers.

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