Shane Storie didn’t really need to see a menu when he headed to Kelekis Restaurant for a bite on Jan. 30, 2013, the North End icon’s final day in operation.
After all, he’d chowed down there dozens of times before, almost always getting the same thing — a hotdog accompanied by an order of the resto’s irresistible, shoestring fries. He asked for one nonetheless, his intention being to surreptitiously tuck it inside his parka, to take home as a memento of his farewell visit there.
Alas, the best-laid plans of mice and men, or in this case, menu thieves oft go astray.
A server delivered a menu as requested, then stood next to his table, not budging an inch, says Storie, the owner of SRS Signs, a full-service signage and lighting company at 1520 Notre Dame Ave. He slyly let her know he might need a moment to decide, to which she shot back, "That’s fine, take all the time you want," adding because of the large number of menus that had gone AWOL lately, she had strict orders to stand guard.
"People are stealing your menus? Who would do such a thing?" he replied, trying not to sound guilty as almost charged.
OK, so maybe the 46-year-old married father of two didn’t net what he was after that particular afternoon, but three years later he landed an even bigger fish — the actual, blue, orange and white C Kelekis sign that hung on the outside of the building for a good chunk of the eatery’s glorious, 81-year run.
You see, Storie doesn’t just turn out signs such as the one affixed to the exterior of the Burton Cummings Theatre, or the giant "Winnipeg" tourist attraction at The Forks; he also collects and displays as many vintage advertisements as will fit on the interior walls of his 10,000-square-foot production facility.
"A number of years back, we had a guy working for us, an old hipster dude, who was a bit of a digger," Storie says, running his hand across a weathered, wooden sign reading Chappies General Store.
"One day we were out on a job replacing a store sign and as I was about to throw the old one out, he mentioned the second I did that, it’d be gone forever. That kind of made me think about how many signs I’d tossed out through the years. Almost immediately, I started keeping pretty much anything I could get my mitts on."
Storie, born and raised in the Interlake, moved to Vancouver in the early 1990s. For a while he bounced from job to job before finding permanent employment at a small sign company. While his primary title was "shop boy," a few months in he was tasked with driving around the city after dark, hunting for business signs with burned-out bulbs. Spot one and he would return bright and early the next day to see if the manager wanted it fixed or not. Most times they did, he says.
He moved back to Winnipeg in 1997, catching on as a closing-shift bartender at an establishment called Moe’s Sports Bar & Grill. Never a person who required much shut eye, he began "night driving" following his shifts, doing the precise thing he did in B.C. — keeping his eyes open for malfunctioning signs.
"I kept a pen and paper on the passenger seat to write down addresses, and a camera to take pics of what I spotted," he explains, noting he used an initial, $5,000 investment to buy a tall ladder and a beat-up blue van, which he loaded to the hilt with light bulbs. "Initially I sent out emails with a shot of a burned out arch in a McDonald’s sign, for example, but it quickly got to a point where everybody knew what I was doing and started reaching out to me if they needed their sign repaired, instead of the other way around."
Storie founded SRS Signs — SRS for Shane Robert Storie — in 1999. He laughs when asked what necessitated the move to his present digs, more than double the size of his first location, in 2013: an increase in sales orders (he added a creative division about three years in), or the fact he’d run out of room there to properly exhibit his treasures?
"Probably a bit of both," he says, offering to escort a visitor on a tour of the premises, to show off his lot.
Among the first pieces to catch our eye is a long, rectangular sign carrying the words "roller skating" in capital letters. That’s correct, he says, it’s the very specimen that used to be on the outside of the Winnipeg Roller Rink, later Galaxy Skateland, formerly located on Portage Avenue near Langside Street. Like the majority of his pieces, the time-worn slice of local history didn’t cost him one red cent.
"I read the rink was closing and literally spent four hours walking through it with the owner, listening to all these stories of how he started working there as a kid and ended up buying the place," Storie says. "At the end of our conversation, when I told him I was interested in his sign, he said if I had the equipment (to remove it) and liked it that much, it was mine."
Another prize — one immediately recognizable to anybody who drove down Main Street with any degree of regularity — is a hand-painted mural that used to adorn the south wall of Billy Mosienko Lanes, a bowling alley established in the 1950s by Stanley Cup champ and Winnipegger Billy Mosienko. When the granddaughter of the National Hockey League hall of famer decided to update the portrait a few years back, Storie immediately got in touch with her, stating if she didn’t have plans for the original, he would love to give it a fresh home. "Be my guest," came the response.
OK, not everything he’s latched onto was free for the taking; not the 70-year-old Northern Bus Lines banner he successfully bid on at an auction a few years back, or the rainbow-coloured Pic-a-Pop placard currently beautifying a wall in a second-floor office adjacent to his own. The Kelekis sign? He bought that in 2016 from his buddies at the Neon Factory. Most were gifts, however. That includes a weathered, Pizza Place sign (you might want to take a few steps back when he breaks into his rendition of the chain’s famous jingle, the one that starts, "We go to Pizza Place to get the flavour of Italy..."), another he scooped up from the mothballed Odeon Drive-in warning "Parents please note classification of tonight’s program is restricted adult," and a wooden relic from a joint called Simon’s Grill.
"I rescued that one from between two buildings that were literally 18 inches apart. The owner of one of them didn’t even know it was there," he says of the sign touting, "best of foods, nips and chips," proving Salisbury House isn’t the only locale to have used the term nips instead of burgers.
"To be completely honest, I’m not entirely sure what happened there," he says about the missing third G in a sign marked, "GRAIN EXCHANGE CURLIN CLUB" went. "Lots of times, I’m one step ahead of a wrecking ball when I nab these things, so I can’t remember whose fault it was that a letter went missing."
"Practically every day," he responds, when asked if, while he and his 30-person staff are feverishly working on a sign for a new biz, they ever draw inspiration from what’s on display all around them; perhaps that red-and-white Tenderage Beef sign over his left shoulder, or one removed from the front of former, downtown clothier Clifford’s, that sign particularly memorable for its use of Old English lettering.
"Just the other day we were designing something and one of the guys mentioned we should maybe incorporate the same shade of green as one on the wall behind him," he says, nodding toward the tin signboard-in-question promoting, of all things, gopher poison.
Also, it’s not that he wants to denigrate what he does for a living — he’s immensely proud of the fact SRS Signs has won multiple industry awards during its 22-year-run — but even he doubts that something he turns out these days, whether it’s for a corporate client such as Dominos, or the Hollywood-style, reflective vinyl Garbage Hill sign (yep, that’s his, too) he built on his own dime three years ago, will remain as eye-catching 50, 60... even 70 years down the road.
"What’s funny-slash-sad is if I was to make you a sign today and you screw it to the outside of your business tomorrow, the chances of it still looking like it just rolled off a production line 15 years from now are very, very slim," he says, noting "you can almost taste the nicotine on that one, can’t you?" in reference to a decades-old Royal Canadian Legion sign reading "British Empire Service League."
"But if you turn around and take a gander at that Dominion Royal Tires sign right behind you, you’ll agree it’s as vibrant today as the day it would have gone up in the late’ ‘40s."
Last question: do people ever find it odd that a person who makes signs day in, day out would keep old ones, too? That it’s a bit like a person who works at the mint going home to their coin collection, or a mail carrier who hoards stamps?
"I don’t really look at it that way," he says. "I don’t have any other hobbies; I don’t fix cars, I don’t play hockey. What I do enjoy is preserving history, and in my case that means doing so one sign at a time."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.