MONTREAL — “It was my baby,” declared Helen Levy, moved by a mixture of joy and sadness as the massive red sign that was over the entrance of Warshaw supermarket on St. Laurent Boulevard for decades was officially unveiled.
Helen Levy stands beside the old Warshaw supermarket sign, now installed in Concordia University’s communications and journalism school.
The sign was rescued after spending years in storage and has been given a permanent home in Concordia University’s communications and journalism school.
Levy, 84, was the owner of the store founded by her parents 75 years ago and closed in 2002. “It was my life, I was there every day. It’s something we built up,” she said. “That was all I did: work and raise four children.” The sign was her fifth.
The seven capital letters, about four feet high and 11 inches deep, now stretch across more than 30 feet on a fifth-floor wall in the Loyola campus building.
The Warshaw sign is one of several iconic commercial signs that have been recovered under Concordia’s Montreal Signs Project, headed by Matt Soar, an associate professor of communications studies.
The project, launched five years ago, aims to document – if not save – the type of signage which was once commonplace and gave the city character.
The other three signs installed so far are from Bens De Luxe Delicatessen and Restaurant, another Jewish family business, Monsieur Hot Dog and the Monkland Taverne, part of a small but growing collection thanks to Soar’s detective work and some good luck.
Four generations of the Levy family (the youngest a babe in arms) attended the dedication, but it was the still-dynamic Helen who took the spotlight.
She began working in the store from the time it opened in 1935 when she was just 8 years old. Her parents, Leah and Louis Florkevitz, recent immigrants from Poland who had sold fruits and vegetables from a pushcart, opened a small produce store on The Main at the height of the Depression.
“One day a painter came by and offered to paint a sign on the glass front for $5. He asked what the name was. When my father said Florkevitz, he said how do you spell that. My father said, ‘I can’t read or write, I don’t know. We just came over from ‘Varshaw’ [using the Polish pronunciation], so put that.’”
Helen pointed out that’s not how the name of the city was spelled, but her parents kept it that way, because they couldn’t afford to have it changed.
By the age of 16, Helen was essentially running the business and had persuaded her parents to diversify to a full range of groceries.
The store became “Warshaw” and eventually she expanded on the original site along St. Laurent and onto St. Dominique Street at the back.
The big red letters now on display went up in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and were originally lit by neon, later replaced by fluorescent. Levy, assisted in later years by her son Harvey, kept the business thriving despite increasing competition from the supermarket chains.
She reluctantly closed the store eight years ago, heeding her family’s urging to take things easier, but she has still not retired. The family still owns the building and Helen goes to the office every day.
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She wiped tears away as she looked at the sign, now mounted at eye level and tastefully lit from above. “It feels just great,” she declared. “It is in good hands and will be part of history. When they took it down [from the store], it was so sad for me. It was like part of my life went.”
The sign was donated by the Société de developpement du Boulevard St. Laurent, the Merchants Association, Les Amis du Boulevard St. Laurent and the Levys.
Soar said the Warshaw sign was in pretty rough shape. After the store closed, artist Nicolas Fleming acquired the sign with the intention of doing something creative with it. For some time, the letters lay stacked in his parents’ backyard under a canvas.
Soar works with a team of sign-makers who employ the tools and techniques of the time the time the signs were first created.
The letters, which are plastic encased in metal, were cleaned up and repaired to the extent needed to make them safe to mount. But the sign, like the others, has not been beautified. Wear and tear can still be seen in spots.
The Bens sign was saved from ending up in landfill thanks to a connection between Simon Bensimon, director of development for Concordia’s arts and sciences faculty, and Sam Benatar of SIDEV Realty, the company that bought the building at the corner of de Maisonneuve Boulevard and Metcalfe Street from the Kravitz family.
Bens, which had been on that site since the 1950s, closed in 2006.
“We received a tip-off [from Bensimon] and hurried down with a rental van and some graduate students. The owners were happy that we took it off their hands,” said Soar. Fortunately, they got there just before the sign was about to be demolished. The Plexiglass sign is now mounted on a stairwell between the fourth and fifth floors.
The red B and E have been placed directly above the N and S on one wall and on the opposite is the circular “Etabli Depuis 1908,” the deli’s famous boast about its long history.
The sign, believed to date from the 1970s, looks pretty good except for some ultraviolet light damage to the “E.” Other than some photos and other interior elements that were acquired by the McCord Museum of Canadian History, the sign is all that remains of the deli that served smoked meat for almost a century.
Soar, who is working with Concordia archivist Nancy Marrelli, believes commercial signage deserves academic attention because of what it can say about a place’s heritage and culture, its entrepreneurship and urban planning, as well as trends in advertising and design technology.
And putting up a sign is one of the most basic means of communications, he adds.
The Montreal Signs Project is looking for anyone with stories to tell about these signs or the whereabouts of others that are deteriorating rapidly or lying forgotten somewhere. Concordia can’t display many more signs and has no funds to buy any, but it does want to record what is known about their history and physical structure.
Visit http://signs.concordia.ca for more information about the project.