Meet your merchant: Love of area leads to setting up shop
Address: 1240 East Main St., Suite 3
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
In the mid-1980s, the summer after high school, Jeanine Hull was ready for an adventure.
She packed up and moved from her hometown of Fair Oaks to Southern California where she landed an office manager job at a company that put lettering on T-shirts, jackets and sweatshirts. She caught the eye of the screen printer, Ken, who suddenly began spending a lot more time in the front office.
Ken and Jeanine married in 1995, and by that time Ken had begun running a smaller, family-owned sign shop in Upland, Calif. But after several years the couple grew tired of Southern California and were eager to explore new opportunities up north. Jeanine had fond memories of visiting Grass Valley in her childhood, and an exploratory visit confirmed that western Nevada County was the new home they were looking for.
Jeanine landed a job in the bakery at Albertsons supermarket and Ken went to work for the Grass Valley Sign Company, where he became the production manager. But after having acquired many years of experience in his field, in 2004 there came a time when Ken was eager to branch out on his own.
With his former boss’ blessing, he left and became a partner at Sign Systems, a sign store on East Main Street in Grass Valley. Two years later, in 2006, Ken and Jeanine bought out their partner and opened a store all their own — Signworks — in the same location. Jeanine quit her job at Albertsons and once again became the office manager, only this time she and Ken were the owners.
“I wanted Kenny to focus on the lettering aspect,” said Jeanine. “It was a natural transition for me to take over the invoicing, pricing and bookkeeping. But I did have to learn more about signs in general.”
“We’re still great friends with my former employers and my old partner, in fact we sometimes cooperate on jobs,” said Ken. “Wouldn’t you rather be on friendly terms than dash down another aisle when you run into them in the supermarket?”
Clearly there’s enough business to go around, as the Hulls are perpetually busy making signs on wood, metal, plastic, vehicles and magnets. A sizable amount of Nevada County restaurants, real estate companies and company truck fleets are boasting signs and images from Signworks. Recently a pilot came in wanting the image of pin-up girl on his airplane, and various movie production companies have sought out the Hulls’ help with set design.
The Hulls have also just been hired by Waste Management to make work schedule charts for the crews in Paradise who are cleaning up debris from the Camp Fire.
“One of the nice things about Grass Valley and Nevada City is that we’ve amassed about 1,500 customers since we started,” said Ken. “Almost everyone we know is somehow connected to the business. People are customers in the beginning and end up becoming friends.”
Now in his early 60s, Ken has also been playing music in clubs since he was 14 years old.
“I was a vocalist in a band for 30 years — I was going to be a rock star by age 21 but somehow that didn’t happen,” he said. “I play drums, guitar, keyboards — I jam with everyone I can. Singing and song writing are true passions.”
That may explain why there is always a broad range of music playing on speakers at the shop. But Ken isn’t the only creative one. In her free time, Jeanine has launched a side business, “Jeanine’s Corner,” inside Signworks and also online on the craft-based website Etsy.com. Handmade items for sale include crocheted hats, scarves, baskets, purses, jewelry and more.
“We generally work well together — we play to each other’s strengths,” said Jeanine, with a laugh. “But we do fire each other about once a week, then we’re back to work.”
A favorite part of the job, said Ken, is when new business owners come in to pick up their sign.
“They’re so excited and somehow the actual sign makes it all real,” he said. “It’s the beginning of their new business, it’s like Christmas. We sometimes install signs too. It’s fun for the owners to drive up and see it for the very first time.”
But part of the job is also educating people, added Ken. For example, no sign should have more than five words, otherwise people lose interest.
“People’s attention span is so quick — you’re lucky to get five seconds when looking at a sign,” he said. “Some people want a page’s worth of information on their truck. A lot of what we do is help people make their branding more efficient.”
Both Jeanine and Ken say that the best parts of their day-to-day lives at the shop are the people and the relationships they’ve built over the years.
“Some projects are quick, and others take weeks,” said Ken. “But everyday is different and you never know who will be coming through the door. But we generally don’t have to advertise. Word of mouth seems to work well enough. I think people know that we love what we do.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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