Anyone who follows me on twitter will have seen my fascination with ghostsigns and especially retail ones. They have also featured at various points in this blog (for example Scotland, Montana, Dublin, London). Most notably (for I am undoubtedly in the enthusiastic amateur category), in 2017, I invited an expert, Sam Roberts (@ghostsigns) to write a guest post for this site. I have watched his work from afar ever since, and about a year ago got really excited about a project he was working on.
This has now come to fruition and he has surpassed himself. Sam has just published a book Ghostsigns: A London Story, put together with Roy Reed (@RoyReed13). Funded by crowd funding on Kickstarter I was very happy to sign up in advance.
A few weeks ago the volume duly appeared and on the (14th November) I ‘attended’ the book launch by Zoom. It was a fabulous tour-de-force of a selection of ghostsigns in London and the story of how the book came together, including with the publisher Isola Press and the designer Eve Isaak. A recording of the event can be found here (and is well worth listening to for some of the stories behind the signs and the research that went into finding out about them, as well as more general discussion about ghostsigns).
The book itself is a magnificent production. It is beautifully presented and designed and every page shows the thought that has gone into it. It is structured broadly into two sections. The first is about ghostsigns themselves and their design, typography and other components of what they are. The second section is a selection of the London ghostsigns by what they advertise; a themed approach. That though does not do justice to the integrated, cross-referenced, nature of the whole text and visuals.
Each ghostsign photographs (and they are exemplar of photography) is supported by text about the sign. During the launch it became apparent how much research had needed to be done to deliver these informative, but often short, textual descriptions and histories. This is a hidden labour effort, but produces something so interesting and useful.
The book is both a culmination and a component of ongoing work. Sam Roberts has been a tour-de-force in ghostsigns for years and this book pulls this knowledge together. It is linked to his walking tours in London and general work in this area. The book is also supported by an interactive map which can be used to build your own tours. Both the map and tour details can be found at the website.
In the discussion at the launch the authors and publishers were asked which city would they like to cover next. The answers varied but Roy Reed suggested Glasgow, and there is an exhibition running till the end of the year which suggests the potential (a quick walk round the city shows this as well). I don’t know if this is possible, but if it is, then this book and the way the whole project has developed and produced is surely the template for what can be done.
These pasts fascinate us and tell us so much. This is such a valuable and informative book. It is though not a static picture. Signs and sites are being lost, and there is a lively debate about protection, repair or decline. New signs though are also being uncovered and add to our knowledge and interest. This is an emerging and ephemeral landscape in so many ways.
If you can, you should buy this book. It is a delight for anyone interested in retail and advertising history and for urban history and streetscapes, whether business or consumer focused. The text on the back cover gets it right
“A feast of history, typography and the urban environment…. showcasing London’s most impressive and historically significant faded painted signs, located, photographed and presented with archival and other contextual images”
but it perhaps underplays the sheer joy in the book.
Roberts S and R Reed (2021) Ghostsigns – A London Story. Isola Press. ISBN 9780995 488694