In the heart of the Tenderloin, in the parking lot of a tire shop, stands a roughly 7-foot sign atop two poles about two stories high. You might expect to see advertising for deals on tires or auto services on the sign. Instead, you'll find inspirational quotes, truisms and sayings. And it's been like that for more than 50 years.
San Francisco columnist Herb Caen once called the sign at the corner of Turk and Larkin “the city’s biggest fortune cookie.”
This sign also piqued the interest of Bay Curious listener John Angelico of San Francisco.
"For a tire shop to have this huge marquee out front giving us something totally unrelated to the sale of tires and auto services ... It's kind of a very San Franciscan thing," says Angelico.
He wanted to know:
"When did the sign get started? Who is responsible for the sign's content, and what kind of reaction have they had over the years from the sign?"
A Message From Above
The story begins with Hugh Keville, co-founder of the tire shop, Kahn and Keville.
“He was a gentleman, very kind, extremely dignified. Very solicitous of other people and, you know, just a very old-fashioned guy,” says Bill Brinnon, the office manager.
After opening the first tire shop in 1912 on Golden Gate Avenue, Keville served in World War I. While at war, he carried a small notebook for collecting quotes.
“I wrote them down to help carry me through,” Keville reportedly once said.
According to Brinnon, Keville saw some gruesome battles.
“Most of his patrol were wiped out and in kind of gory and bloody fashion right in front of him,” Brinnon says. “He was a young man at the time and it had a big effect on him.”
After returning from war, Keville started writing the quotes he'd collected on a small blackboard inside the tire shop, next to the cashier's window. Customers and friends liked them enough that it became a tradition. Soon he was putting up new quotes each week, and he continued the tradition even after Kahn and Keville opened a new tire shop on Turk and Larkin streets in 1934.
One day, a customer suggested to Keville that he move the quotes outside so more people could see them.
And boy, did he.
In 1958, Keville had the giant sign installed in the parking lot. Its sole purpose was for presenting quotes.
The Sign Today
Keville is no longer around, and he passed the sign duty on to Bill Brinnon in the 1970s.
Brinnon was the perfect fit for such an important task. He has loved language for a long time. In college he studied English and architecture. After graduation he worked in a bookstore and then a publishing company.
These days the sign changes roughly every four to six weeks. They come from what Brinnon is reading, “and then of course employees can bring things in, and everybody knows we do it, so they'll say, 'Oh, here's a good one, you'll like it,' ” says Brinnon.
A lot of the feedback they receive are calls from bus riders, who pass the sign on their daily routes.
Brinnon tells me he prefers truisms, humor and quotes that play with language, though some believe the quotes have a political bent.
“I had a little encounter last night with a passer-by and he had all kinds of ideas about what we put up there. And he thought we were too political and I don't feel we are. So I went back and checked the records, and the quote we put out had nothing to do with politics,” says Brinnon.
Recently, the sign displayed a quote by Voltaire saying, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
Though Brinnon admits he’s concerned about the state of the nation, he says he does his best to keep his politics off the sign.
“I think there are some real problems and dangers facing us. Because it’s a government based on impulse. ... It’s not what we’re used to, but the corner sign is what we’re used to. We don’t change too much around here,” he says.
But it could change. This store was once one of many tire shops that made up Tire Row. All the other shops have shuttered, and tech giants like Uber and Twitter have moved nearby. Brinnon knows that this tire shop may not be around much longer.
“As far as the industry itself -- the idea of an old stand-alone tire store where they sell nothing but tires is probably a thing of the past,” he says.
The Selection Process
I visited Brinnon two months ago, to see how the quotes get selected.
When I arrived, Brinnon had narrowed it down to four options:
"WE DON’T KNOW WHAT WE WANT, BUT WE ARE READY TO BITE SOMEBODY TO GET IT." - WILL ROGERS.
"I CAN SEE NOT EVERYONE HAS A SEAT AT THE TABLE, IT’S TIME TO BUILD A BIGGER TABLE." - RANDY BRYCE IRONWORKER.
"IT’S NEVER ENTIRELY HEARTENING TO LEARN THAT FASCISTS ARE ALWAYS INCOMPETENT."
"BUILD A WALL ON THE INTERNET AND MAKE RUSSIA PAY FOR IT."
Next, Brinnon writes them out on a piece of paper the way they’d look on the board and shows them to various employees in the shop.
He talks to tire technicians, office workers and the general manager.
The one that got everyone talking was the quote about Russia.
“They meddled in the election, Russia did, and took my vote away!” says Ron Dhein, the general manager.
A week later, that quote was on the sign.