OKEMOS – They don’t make signs like the one perched above Playmakers’ parking lot on West Grand River Avenue anymore.
The 30-foot tall “shopping cart lady,” there since 1957, glows green when lit. Neon tubes powered by transformers inside the sign make it look as though the woman depicted is walking, her cart’s wheels turning with each step.
Replicating the icon today would be pricey, said Paul Vlahakis, and the finished creation would never make it past modern signage requirements thanks to its sheer size.
His company, JJV Properties, has been the shopping cart lady’s caretaker since it purchased the property in the 1980s, just after Schmidt’s Food Market closed its doors there.
The sign remained, Vlahakis said, because even then it was clear it was part of the community.
“It’s basically a landmark,” he said. “It’s been there for so long.”
Now, after six years of darkness, the shopping cart lady has been relit and nearly restored to full working order. A fire in the summer of 2015 caused a short in its transformers.
Restoration after a fire
Vlahakis said a bird’s nest is believed to have started the fire inside the sign that June.
It was too close to the sign’s transformers, which get hot, he said.
“The sign just started smoking and smoldering and it caused the neon transformers to short out,” Vlahakis said.
Signs made today are usually lit with LED lighting, he said, but his company has made an effort to maintain the neon tubes and transformers that have always powered the shopping cart lady sign.
“It’s very rare that you find neon tubes being used or manufactured anymore,” Vlahakis said.
But he said modernizing the sign wasn’t a consideration after the fire, so the components inside the sign needed to be replaced.
The final cost of the work isn’t clear yet, Vlahakis said, though he expects to spend “thousands of dollars.”
The work didn’t start until after the wiring located under the property’s parking lot was replaced.
Work on the sign should be completed by the end of the week, he said, though the sign’s lights were back on at the end of last week.
Its neon glow didn’t go unnoticed.
A community ‘celebrity’
That’s because the shopping cart lady is a kind of local celebrity, said Andy Marsh, a manager at Playmakers.
She served as a mascot for Schmidt’s Food Market for more than two decades.
In the years after the market closed, she has loomed over other tenants in the building, including Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Old Country Buffet, The Cappuccino Cafe and, since 2002, Playmakers. Current tenants also include Peak Performance Physical Therapy and Lotte Market.
“There are a whole lot of people who are happy that she’s fixed,” Marsh said.
So much so that when Playmaker’s posted the news to its Facebook page Friday afternoon with a photo of the lit sign, it garnered over 125 comments and over 200 shares.
“On June 16, 2015, the iconic Shopping Cart Lady caught on fire and has been out of service,” it read. “We are happy to announce that she is back on and lit!”
Marsh said Playmakers’ staff is as excited and grateful for the repairs as community members.
“She’s been watching over West Grand River Avenue for over 60 years,” he said. “That’s amazing.”
Contact Rachel Greco at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @GrecoatLSJ .