In The Trenches: Where's Leon, Part II

Rick Williams

Rick Williams owns Rick’s Sign Company, a commercial sign shop in Longview, Texas. He has been in the sign industry since 1973 and has been a contributing editor to Sign Business since 1986. Contact Rick via e-mail at ricksignco@aol.com.

Back in the mid-1970s, way back when I was young and good looking, I ran a small one-man sign shop out of a 1,200-square-foot building across the street from my old school.

Word of mouth was practically my only advertising, but I had plenty of hand-painted signwork to do, and I worked alone. My building was cozy, with a great old shade tree off the left corner of the place under which I hand lettered many a truck, van or bus. I was having fun, but also had my share of time pressure, because if I didn’t do it, it didn’t get done.

The workload I could almost handle, but keeping things clean and organized at the same time was a hopeless proposition. Constant deadlines seemed to invariably get in the way of doing the housekeeping and maintenance required for even a small shop and yard. I fought this battle continuously, and not so successfully until a young man named Tony, who I knew from church, came in one day and asked if I had work for him to do.

I told him I needed someone to clean the whole shop, and especially go through the large scrap material pile under the main 6’ x 6’ work table, saving what was large enough to use and throwing away the rest. It must have been worse than I thought, because Tony took one look at all there was to do, and said, “Mr. Rick, I think I’ll pass.”

I have told this story before, and it has a happy ending, because one day a 9th grader from the school across the street, having moved here from Alabama, came in the door and asked the same question. I showed him the big job ahead, the piles of scrap materials, the yard outside, and Leon, an awkward and gangly Alabaman simply said, “When can I start?”

“As you can see, Leon, now is quite a bit too late, but if you want to try…” and then he cheerfully interrupted and said, “Oh, I’ve done a lot harder work than this, I’ll get on it right away,” and brother did he ever. When he left for home that evening the shop was a new place, I was in shock and couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for a week.

Leon worked for me for less than a year, and I have missed him ever since. But, one more time I’m on a mission to find such a young person, and boy do I have a position for him!

It’s not that my employees, or myself are just too lazy, or hate cleaning, and the shop is not a total wreck or anything, but we are constantly chasing deadlines and I’m tired of not taking care of business around the home front, the way Leon (who would be in his 50s today!) could do it.

Years ago, “American Chopper” -- a show on cable TV about a family run business of building very custom motorcycles -- featured a dad (Big Paul) and a son (Little Paul), and the dad was always riding his most talented employee, his son, about how sloppy and unkempt his area of the shop was, cussing and fussing at him constantly. Well, I’ve been in business long enough to know he should have kept Little Paul happily working and creating and doing what he was so good at, and just hired a minimum wage helper to stay right next to him cleaning up and organizing as they went. Instead, after tremendous fights and frustration they went their separate ways in anger and hostility.

Well, I realize that around here, I’m both big Paul and Little Paul, and I’m tired of fussing’ and cussin’ at myself, getting the work done but slacking on the housekeeping. But, I’m sure there’s other Leons out there, and I’m going to turn this little corner of Texas upside down and shake it until one falls out. And when I have him, we are going to have a great thing going and I already  know what that’s like, oh happy day!

By next month, I intend for it to be done, and the shop will be guided-tour ready. I am looking forward to it, and it’s going to be great. Well, maybe not as great as when I was young and good looking, but great just the same!

I’ll have a wonderful month then, and hope you’re having one now, and your Leon has already been located. But if I can’t find one around here, I’m headed to Alabama to recruit!