Will retro neon signs make a comeback? Toronto collectors hope so

Collectors of neon signs are bringing neon signage back to the forefront with a pop-up shop to showcase Toronto's lost history.

Neon sign pop-up shop runs from April 12 to 14

Neon Demon Studios, run by photographer Jon Simo, has one of the largest collections of neon signage in Toronto. (Jon Simo)

The buzzing glow of a neon sign is becoming a rarity in Toronto. Decades after they stretched up and down Yonge Street, most storefronts have replaced them with LED signs. 

But Mark Garner, executive director of the Downtown Yonge BIA, believes a crucial part of Toronto history is lacking.

"Neon was part of that sensory perception, it has a tone to it ... neon in a rainstorm, when you hear the crackle of neon when rain drops hit it, there's something about it."

Garner, photographer and filmmaker Jon Simo and Slate Asset Management are doing their best to bring back the retro signage by opening a pop-up shop to showcase their collection. 

Lovers of the retro signage say neon is one of the few kinds of lighting that 'tells a story.' (Jon Simo)

The pop-up will feature signs from Toronto's past, including ones from the Friar's Tavern, and Canary Restaurant. 

Running from  April 12 to 14, the gallery will be held at the Junction House, a mixed-use residential building at Dundas Street West and Dupont Street.

Garner, who also runs the Neon Museum of Toronto as a passion project, hopes the pop-up will drum up interest for a more permanent installation in the future.

"There's a significant story that needs to be said. The cultural significance of signage on Yonge Street and on those venues is paramount to telling that story."

This artist's rendering shows what the Honest Ed's sign will look like if the city approves a plan to install it on the Victoria Street entrance of the Ed Mirvish Theatre. (Mirvish Productions)

Simo received his first neon sign three years ago as a gift and it quickly turned into a fixation. 

"I just started to fall in love with the art form of this light source ... It kick-started the idea of starting a studio with neon, something I could really play around with and something I could share with people. 

I just started to fall in love with the art form of this light source.- Jon Simo, photographer and founder of Neon Demon Studio

He turned that idea into Neon Demon Studio, a photography and workspace for Toronto creatives.

His collection has continued to grow, as he has added and refurbished over two dozen signs. 

Both Garner and Simo have long wanted a space where historic neon signs in Toronto could be properly housed and cared for. Enter The Junction House, with a spare space large enough to store several large pieces of signage. 

The Canary Restaurant, a popular location in the present-day Distillery District, was well-known for it's glowing neon sign outside. (Downtown Yonge BIA)

"Toronto, we have winter sometimes and it can be darker, colder and greyer," said Brandon Donnell, vice president of Slate Asset Management, the ownership group in charge of the Junction House. 

"And I think light, in general, in the urban environment is an interesting way of offsetting that."

They're all hoping the pop-up is the first major step to a re-birth in popularity of neon signs. 

Do neon signs have a future in Toronto? 

Many of he most iconic landmarks in Toronto in recent decades have had famous facades illuminated by neon signs: Honest Ed's, Sam the Record Man and the Hard Rock Cafe. 

For decades, neon signage in front of Toronto restaurants and businesses was a gold standard, according Simo, but by the 1980s, that changed. 

"Eventually, it starts to have this more seedy motif as they degrade in quality and they began to be used for motels and strip clubs and things like that," Simo explained. 

As Toronto's Yonge Street continues to change, longtime fixtures, like the Hard Rock Cafe's neon signage, is disappearing at a quick rate. (CBC News)

But Simo said there is real artistic value in bringing back a nearly lost form. He likens himself to an "Indiana Jones" of neon sign collecting, due to his penchant for scouring in warehouses and lots. 

The hardest part, he says, is tracking them down when many retro signs have been neglected. 

"There's a lot of neon in the city, just hiding in warehouses, hiding in storage units. And we've just got to go find it."

And Garner, who hopes the pop-up will bring more interest to neon signs and restoration, said there's already been major strides in preserving the past. 

The Honest Ed's sign will be mounted on Victoria Avenue for public viewing by the end of 2019 and the Neon Museum of Toronto is hoping to land a more permanent indoor viewing area at Toronto's Old City Hall after municipal courts vacate the space in 2021. 


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