If Ace of Base had been from San Francisco instead of Sweden, their song “The Sign” would clearly have been an homage to the giant marquee looming above tire shop Kahn and Keville at the corner of Turk and Larkin – a San Francisco fixture that Herb Caen once coined the “world’s biggest fortune cookie.”
The retro marquee has featured quotes and aphorisms, both famous and obscure, since the late 1950s. Over the years I’ve lived in San Francisco, I’ve been drawn to the sign as an emblem of the eccentricities that make this city worth living in. I first spotted it driving up Larkin Street one afternoon in my 1984 gold Mercedes-Benz. Now I go out of my way to take that route home, so I can look out my window and marvel at the quotes, some phrases turning my neck, others twisting my mind.
I wanted to know more, so I started coming by the shop, not for a new set of tires, but to find out who or what was behind the sign. The shop guys told me I needed to speak to Bill, but every time I came by, Bill was out. After several visits, I finally pinned him down one Friday afternoon, and we entered the back office of the tire shop, a visual reminder of a bygone era. The room was a paper-packed sea of receipts, sun-faded wall calendars, bulging binders from eons ago, all topped off by the smell of rubber tires cast loose upon the air. Everyone’s fingers but mine, blackened with work. The computers on the desk were clearly Internet-proof, indicated by green letters floating along a black abyss. Bill Brinnon, the guy behind the sign, sat down, cleared his throat and began to tell me the story of the enigmatic sign I had long since wondered about.
Photo by Erik Wilson
Back around 1912, Harry H. Kahn and Hugh J. Keville went into the tire business together, opening their original shop on Golden Gate Avenue. While both owners shared business duties, the story of the sign begins solely with Keville, when he decided to volunteer his service in World War I as a mapmaker. While at war, he carried a little notebook of inspirational sayings to keep his spirits up. Bill explained, “Hugh saw a lot of horrible things in the war, so this little book of sayings meant a big deal to him.”
When he returned, Keville had the idea to share the quotes that buoyed his spirits during the war with his customers by putting up a blackboard in the shop. “First it was tiny, and then when the quotations got longer the chalkboard got bigger. He had a whole big chalkboard wall. He’d come in every week and write a new quotation; it was by the cashier’s window so all the customers could see it.”
In 1934 the shop moved to Turk and Larkin, constructed upon a dumpy property formerly housing a miniature golf course. Kahn passed away in the late ’50s and Keville carried on the business. The marquee sign we know and love today went up around 1958 and when Keville finally retired he turned it over to Marshall Jenkins, who carried on the tradition until around 1969, when he passed the torch to Bill Brinnon, the man who currently picks the pithy lines.
“I’m now officially in charge of it. It’s changed quite a bit; to be honest, the tenor of the remarks in the ’50s were a lot about women drivers because that was the way people talked in those days. That was one of the first things we changed. Also, I like to have a little twist at the end. Some irony. A joke.”
Photo by Myleen Hollero
I ask Bill if he gets feedback on the sign’s quotes, which range from lines of prose to famous quips. “Oh, people call. Leah Garchik watches it. Herb Caen used to be a fan. We get a lot of customer feedback. A large portion of the people who watch it on a regular basis are bus riders. They don’t even own cars, but they call us to comment. We want to be noticed and we like feedback.”
The sign changes every three to six weeks, depending on how much feedback they get from the community. Bill says that if the phone isn’t ringing with people complimenting or complaining, then they know it’s a dud and take it down. “The purpose of the sign is to encourage discussion.”
And quite a discussion they have maintained. People all over town admire the sign. Filmmaker Pete Lee recalls the sign being a fixture of his time working in the Tenderloin. “I used to walk by it every day; it’s the one thing that still catches me by surprise every time I look up at it, because the sources are always kind of obscure. It becomes this thing in the neighborhood that you take pride in.”
Has there ever been a sign that backfired? Bill nods. “Yes, badly. It was during the savings and loans crisis of the ’80s. A lot of people were out of work and we put up a sign that said, ‘You never looked so good as when you fill out an employment application.’ Man, we got calls that never ended. People were very upset; they thought we were making fun of them. It was a tough time, kind of like now, only this is worse. People look up there for advice and how to live their life; we don’t want to make them feel badly.”
Photo by Sarah Han
How does Bill pick the quotes? The old-fashioned way. Customers bring in ideas, and people living on the streets bring in a few from time to time. Mostly the inspiration comes from Bill’s hours spent reading. I ask Bill why he doesn’t just consult the Internet. “We stay away from the Internet; I’m personally not very fond of it.” He elaborates on why it’s not the best source: “A good illustration is recently we had Gore Vidal up there because he died. I wanted to make sure the quote was exact because he was a real stickler on proofreading. If I got it wrong, somebody would have told me. So I went on the Internet and went through 99 references and they were all wrong. The correct one came from San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jonathan Curiel who had been at the Herbst Theatre that night taping it. We got it from the horse’s mouth. Every other single one all across the country in every newspaper had printed it incorrectly. That’s why we stay away from the Internet.”
Once several quotes are up for vote, the selection process at the tire shop begins. “I choose about four or five quotes and then I go from person to person at the shop while they are changing tires and they check off the one they like so it gives a good cross-section. Some of the guys enjoy it, some don’t want to do it at all and I have to cajole them. My best source is the person who physically puts it up; his English isn’t perfect, so he has to think and really work at picking a quote, so I value his decision more than others.”
Bill’s tracking system of the sign’s sayings over the year is also very antiquated. He doesn’t use a computer and everything gets logged manually. The archive of the old signs is just a notebook filled with paper templates of the marquee with the quote penciled in. The history of the sign is stored in this precarious stack of papers, but that’s exactly the way Bill likes it.
Photo by Eric Steuer
A customer ringing the bell interrupts our conversation. The first priority around here is tires, and Bill has to attend to people in need of patches and new axles, so I let him get back to business. As I walk out I ask him, “Is there a day when you’re gonna be done?”
“Yeah, the last sign will be my name up there with RIP.”
Outside in the parking lot full of immobilized cars with punctured and failing tires, I look at the sign that’s up now. It’s a quote from Cormac McCarthy: “Between the thing and the wish the world lies waiting.” This neighborhood is changing rapidly; just blocks away, businesses based on things less grounded than tires are moving in. While the building itself at 500 Turk has been preserved as a historical landmark, that doesn’t include the glorious marquee.
My wish is for the great sign to remain forever, but I know change is inevitable. Even if down the road, when I’m old and still hopefully in love with San Francisco, and all the kids have chips in their brain and don’t know how to read, I’ll be able to say that once upon a time I saw the sign and it opened up my eyes.
Photo by Myleen Hollero
Do It Yourself
Replace the tires on your car at Kahn and Keville, or just stop by to offer your favorite quote for the sign.
Top photo by Eric Steuer