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Cover Story

Sign of the Times Page 2

Salt Lakers' obsession with nostalgia

By Stephen Speckman
Posted // July 5,2012 -

Journey to the Past
Some might carry a vintage visage for a night out once in a while. Others admire characters wearing the look in films like Midnight in Paris and The Artist. Others literally live the look.

Jamie Shields has created an appearance for himself that could be described as nostalgic chic. “I live like a bum, but if I dress like this, it looks like I put some effort into it,” Shields says while browsing selections with a friend at Ken Sanders Rare Books in May.

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He’s dressed this day in a black trilby hat, white shirt, black pants and a black vest in which he keeps a working pocket watch that he winds every day. “I just think there’s a lot from the past that works well,” says Shields, a high school English teacher.

When he uses his old typewriter at home to compose poetry, he doesn’t get a headache that might come from staring at a computer screen for two hours.

What drives Shields is the substance of what the past has to offer. His favorite author is the late Ray Bradbury, whose success was built upon nostalgia and suspicion of intrusive modern conveniences.

It is a love of old neon tubing that draws people through the front door of David Brimley’s family-run sign shop on 300 West in Salt Lake City. At Brimley Neon, they make new signs to look old and restore old signs to keep them looking new.

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Some of the work they do is done in the same way as Brimley’s grandfather did in the 1930s when Leonard Brimley started the business of “bending neon.”

“We’re not really focused on nostalgia, but more focused on doing things the old-school way,” David Brimley says.

It’s a practical means of getting the job done well. “I think nostalgia caught up with us rather than us chasing nostalgia,” he adds.

About three-quarters of the customers who visit Brimley Neon come for nostalgic reasons. Some are seeking the restoration of an old beer or soda sign, or a neon-ringed clock. Others want to own a working piece of what Main Street USA used to look like when neon signs lined sidewalks outside of bustling businesses.

“I think a lot of people are appreciating the good craftsmanship that’s been around for years,” Brimley says. “I think it relates a lot to when people were younger.”

His son-in-law Ryan Eastland “bends neon,” as it’s known in industry parlance, in the shop behind the glow of the front showroom. Eastland is a guy cut from a mold similar to Shields’.

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He’s in a band called Ugly Valley Boys. They’ve carved an “old timey” sound that runs on whiskey-infused, honest but simple lyrics la Johnny Cash, guided along by an upright bass and Eastland’s guitar and gritty vocals.

When they hit the road with their roots music, it’s with a 1956 Mercury travel trailer—but not just because the music and travel gear rounds out a certain niche sound or look. “It just all comes naturally, really,” Eastland says. “I’ve always liked things from the past.”

Built to Last
At the 120-year-old Armstrong Mansion on 700 East in Salt Lake City, it’s about escapism and a chance to recharge, going to sleep in and waking up to all that is nostalgic inside this charming B&B.

“This reminds me of my grandma’s house,” says innkeeper Barb Thompson at her desk.

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As you walk around inside, everything is old and well-preserved, from the antique beds, desks and decorations to the wood trim, lights and tables. Every square inch of the place has something unique, a kind of character that evokes what Thompson describes as a sense of contentedness.

“They are leaving well-rested and just … they’re happy,” she says. “I think everyone needs a time to escape from our busy lives. And this does it.

“I think there’s such peace here,” she adds. “I think people need to take a minute and look at things that have been here a while and ask why they’ve lasted.”

Jemie Sprankle asks himself that question when contemplating the inner workings of his apartment. The answers often come from that which is “authentic,” not just something new and mass-produced that might be made only to look old. He shops in consignment stores, including Now & Again in Salt Lake City.

“If you’re going to take the time to hunt something down that doesn’t come from a big store, you might as well take the time to find something that’s actually authentic, that has the age and the character you’re looking for,” says Sprankle, 25, who is looking to “spruce up” his crib a bit.

“My biggest thing is a try to stick with things that are made of wood and are actually man-made, made well, like craftsman, like back before everything got outsourced,” he added. “Especially if it’s made in America—that’s my thing.”

Sprankle says a lot of stuff now is just particleboard, things that are “slapped together,” like what you might find at stores like Ikea.

Now & Again owner Michael Sanders has been buying and selling vintage clothes and home items since he was a teenager. It’s how he feeds his desire for cowboy hats and cars.

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He says his customers are all about the quality and low cost of his products. “It’s easy to go to Madison Avenue in New York and drop $7,000 on a credenza,” he says. “But it’s so much more interesting, fun, exciting to go out and find one for $500 yourself and have the level of quality be the same.”

Sanders offers usable or working vintage home furnishings, like a 1941 refrigerator. For those who think it’s out of place for their décor, Sanders says “the modern home is not one strict thing. I think that’s boring … when it’s decked out with Jensen[-Lewis] everything and the Dunbar sofa and the high-end Eames everything. It’s great, but I’ve seen that a thousand times—haven’t you?

“It’s more interesting,” he adds, “to put a gold rococo table in between two Eames chairs or a 120-year-old bench”—to, in other words, not just copy someone else’s idea right out of a magazine like Dwell. “You can just order that stuff.”

He tells his large Facebook following, “Come to Now & Again, where we think Ikea is a four-letter word.”

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“People tell me all the time they like coming in here because things don’t wobble,” he says. “… People come in and say, ‘My grandmother had this or she had that.’ We like people to feel good in our store, and I think nostalgia plays a part of it.”

Stephanie Swift describes nostalgia as the feeling that people search for, sometimes while looking for a slice of life similar to the wholesome Americana you might find on the covers of those old copies of The Saturday Evening Post.

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It could be a purchase in a store, or a cup of coffee in the shop where you met your honey. Hey, maybe the ritual of reading this paper—the aroma of ink and paper, the texture in your hand, the weight of the pages—is the very thing that will keep newspapers like City Weekly being printed on paper for the foreseeable future. When it’s printed on paper, you won’t have to update your browser or reboot your system to see these words.

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