Signs of the times
Canton Sign Shop to close after 50 years
By Natalie K. Pollock
When Joe and Barbara Garrity were growing up in Simsbury, it was Joe’s art teacher Mrs. Thibodeau who suggested to him that he should attend art school. After 50 successful years operating the Canton Sign Shop, the couple is ready to retire and spend more time with their family. But they are leaving their long-standing customers wondering where to turn for help with their signs.
“I went to art school in Boston, the Butera School. I took a course in sign painting and thought it was cool. We studied layout work versus graphic design. They offered art with raised letters,” said Joe Garrity.
When the Garrity’s first married in 1967, they lived in a New Hartford apartment and worked on signs in their living room. Moving to Unionville so that they could work out of the basement was an improvement.
Joe Garrity served six years in the Army Reserves during the Vietnam War era, mostly painting stars on Jeeps and working with the truck motor pool.
Then a sign shop in Hartford called him and started giving him work.
“We’ve been together forever,” said his wife.
Together they have four daughters and eight grandchildren, one of whom, sadly, recently died.
The couple has always worked together – she in the office keeping track of the finances and invoices, and he out in the workshop working with his hands and his artistic talent.
The Canton Sign Shop at 5 Albany Turnpike in West Simsbury will close by the end of 2021. The business began in a one-car garage space behind Davidson Chevrolet and moved to its current location in 1983. The Garrity’s tried to sell the business, “but we couldn’t get anyone who could do custom work like us. Many of those who came to look were print shops only,” said Barbara Garrity.
They do not make electrical nor paper signs, but most of every other kind. Vinyl is the most popular, and they are known for their engraved signs with gold leaf lettering, which are a specialty of Joe’s brother, Mike Garrity.
In the early years, the business provided lettering for trucks, all by hand using pen and ink and paint brushes. Since then vinyl lettering has become popular.
“We letter trucks and not many others do. About 40 percent of our business comes from truck customers. It’s good work because it’s mostly labor. There are very few materials needed, just vinyl, plus some design, and no installation. We can start at 8 a.m. and be done by 5 p.m. That’s what we like,” said Joe Garrity.
His daughter Karen McCoubrey, who has two children, studied graphic design in college. She is able to produce logos for some clients on the computer. Even those customers who have their own design and logo often benefit from some of her tweaking and advice. Gone are the days when her father drew up designs by hand.
Besides applying vinyl lettering the shop also offers raised letters, in addition to carved signage. They used to work with redwood to sandblast a texture, but now that material is difficult to get from the West Coast because of fires. They can use urethane foam or plastic to change the face of a sign.
“We have mostly commercial clients. We make some residential signs with house numbers. And farms in the Valley always need signs. We have made many signs in the Valley. And some businesses get a sign and then four to five years later they are gone. A lot of those are in small shopping centers,” said Joe Garrity.
During the height of the pandemic, the shop made many plastic A-frame signs for schools, stores, hospitals and others directing people with the mask protocol and new procedures as well as hours.
The Hoffman Auto Group has often called on Joe Garrity to mix colors for them. One of his talents is an uncanny ability to match colors for cars that have been damaged.
“It’s old school. Cars come from the factory with a pinstripe. I touch up the paint on the replaced part,” he said.
The sign shop also used to have a lot of race car customers from Riverside Park Speedway and Stafford Speedway among others. That was when letters were hand-painted rather than vinyl.
“Sometimes we go on site to do the lettering. Pierce Builders hired us to letter their trucks that were parked at the Amazon facility near the airport,” said Joe Garrity.
He and his wife have been watching the business change over the last few years and feel that some of the new techniques are beyond their talents and expertise to provide for more high-tech and electronic requests.
“Some people are now doing wraps that cover the whole car. If you see a large truck with pictures on the side, that’s a wrap. We would need special equipment and a lot more people to do that. More people are beginning to wrap their own cars. For example, people can only get white trucks [because of Covid]. So if they want red to match their logo, they have to have the whole truck painted, or they can go to a wrap specialist. That’s less expensive than painting,” said Joe Garrity.
Jeff Brighenti of Avon Plumbing and his family have counted on the services of the Canton Sign Shop for close to 50 years.
“Joe is a hands-on person and an excellent craftsman. That’s why his work is all over the Valley. He is an honest and fair person and businessman. And he treats clients and employees well,” said Brighenti.
He pointed out that local businesses would of course want to deal with a local supplier of signs.
“I don’t know where I will go for our signs. We have never used anyone else. I’ll have to talk with Joe to get his recommendations,” said Brighenti.
For Deanna Damon, the owner of the Cake Gypsy, the Canton Sign Shop has been providing signs for 12 years. She recently ordered several more signs than she needed so that she would have a supply for future needs.
“They are super talented, especially in engraving. The signs stood out because they did an amazing job,” she said.
She calls herself a perfectionist. When she presented them with her vision for a sign design, they re-created it. Damon attributes the look of her stores to their talents.
She suggested that one of the reasons the Garrity’s care so much is because they are a family business rather than a large corporation, and their low overhead allows them to offer a fairer price.
“This is such an incredible loss for me and the community as a whole. I don’t know anyone who could do what they do. I don’t know what I will do [without them],” said Damon. V