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  • Writer's pictureEric Chambers

The Semiotics of Covid-19 Signs

(originally published on April 18, 2020)

A few weeks ago, when New York’s shelter-in-place order was firmly established, I took a walk around New Paltz. The SUNY New Paltz campus had extended its spring break by a week and encouraged students to stay home for the rest of the semester; part of the reason I went for a walk was to figure out, exactly, how I was going to handle remote teaching. As the shelter-in-place for New York was in effect by that time, Main Street was … deserted? Empty? Quiet? It’s hard to find the correct adjective to describe the stillness, the complete and utter lack of activity going on. Anyway, as I was walking along the street, I started paying attention to the signage that most stores had put up announcing that they had closed. I was reminded of an article written by Shonna Trinch and Edward Snajdr (which I just found out they expanded into a book!) a few years ago, detailing the gentrification process in Brooklyn through the study of storefront signs. They distinguished between two major types of signs, which they called “Old-School Vernacular” and “Distinction-Making” signs. Old-School Vernacular signs are identifiable by their clear, large fonts and their banners which clearly advertise the services they provide, while the stores that use them are typified by the proliferation of ads and signs on their windows. If you think of a typical NYC bodega sign, that’s what an Old-School Vernacular sign looks like. Trinch and Snajdr argue that these types of signs primarily index a community-based, local ideology that tries to integrate all members of the community. This is in contrast with Distinction-Making signs, which are usually monolexical, where the name of the store gives little obvious relationship to what the store sells (think “Bird” as the name of a children’s store), and whose stores show a lack of signs on the window. These types of signs are much less likely to foster a sense of community and belonging, and instead can be seen as exclusive to some community members (primarily those who may not have the English proficiency or the income to shop at those stores). Looking at these signs on the temporarily-deserted storefronts in New Paltz, I was reminded of this article. The current pandemic, of course, is a global and national issue, but its effects are being felt first and foremost throughout local communities, where ties that people take for granted — running into each other onto the street, stopping by for coffee or a child’s birthday, saying hi in the hallway — are being denied them as they are instructed to “socially” distance from others (what a garbage phrase to use for that phenomenon, by the way….even if we have to physically limit our contact, we do not have to socially do so). These stores, the vast majority of which are locally-owned, are recognized as important to the community. At the same time, though….these stores are stores. They sell things, and are dependent on income in order to continue operations. No customers, no income. So they have to find ways to survive in the marketplace, perhaps by reaching out to capitalist ideologies that brand them not necessarily as members of the community, but as stores. Or they can do both. One of the criticisms that can be made of Trinch and Snajdr’s argument is that there is not a clear-cut distinction between Old-School Vernacular and Distinction-Making signage. One could imagine, for example, a health club or gym opening in Brooklyn which is meant to cater to the young and income-laden, but which also clearly spells out in its signage that it’s a “gym - sauna - health spa” or something similar. Similarly, what to do with a store sign that’s written in a language other than English? It may function just the same way as a bodega (and may, in fact, be nothing more than a bodega), but for people who may not speak the language of the community, the signs may serve as unintentional gatekeepers, excluding as opposed to including. Signs can therefore be complex, with multiple meanings that can be read through them that position themselves both as members of a community and as capitalist entities. So what I want to do here is just talk about some of the signs that I see around New Paltz, signs that reflect the pandemic — and the role that they play in locating these stores both locally and more globally.

McFoxlins, New Paltz, NY

So here’s a sign that I think best reflects the local correlate to Old-School Vernacular signs: first of all, it’s important to note that this sign is hand-written. Being hand-written, as opposed to being printed from a computer, carries with it certain ideologies that, among other things, signals local-ism and intimacy. The vast majority of signs (though, importantly, not all) are hand-written, which suggests that for many of these businesses, these signs were quickly (perhaps hastily) written down and taped to the front window—with the hope that they are only temporary additions to a more permanent storefront. But notice what the sign is about too: “given the current threat of Covid-19, we feel it would be irresponsible to remain open.” This word, irresponsibility, strikes me because they are relating their decision to close with acting responsibly — which they elaborate on with the plea to practice social distancing to “protect ourselves and those members of our community at a higher risk.” Our community. That’s an important phrase: McFoxlin’s is part of our community, and is acting responsibly because that is what community members do — ensure the health and safety of all involved.

The idea of staying safe for the community runs through a lot of signs:

Commissary, New Paltz,NY

The Commissary, a vegan cafe in New Paltz, has decided to remain open, but illustrates this with a colorful sign that looks as if it was made with fingerpaint. It clearly ask people not to enter, both for the safety of their staff and, through the use of the phrase “stay safe, stay soft,” the community as well.

Manny’s, New Paltz, NY

Notice that Manny’s begins their sign with “Dear Friends,” already introducing themselves as part of a larger community. They’re closing to protect themselves and the community, and want everyone to stay safe too.

Likwid, New Paltz, NY

And here, perhaps the purest of the “stay-safe” sentiments. Because downtown New Paltz has zoning restrictions on certain types of businesses, ‘corporate’ businesses (those that are branded by regional/national/international companies) are not well represented, except for one: Starbucks is one of the few non-independently-owned stores on downtown Main Street in New Paltz. This sign provides an interesting counterpart to the hand-written signs used by many of the other stores, perhaps the best corollary to Trinch and Snajdr’s Distinction-Making signage. Note first, the logo prominently displayed at the top. The note is printed, as opposed to hand-written, and the text is written in what could be called 'corporate-ese': the phrase "please accept our apologies for any inconvenience" sounds particularly generic. Nothing in this sign localizes it to New Paltz, suggesting that this sign is just one of many templates that were sent to other stores in similar circumstances. However, the sign does make clear the possibility of finding a nearby Starbucks store, complete with a QR code to quickly find it. So initially, with these signs there is a clear distinction between the local and the global, the community and the capitalist, and the intimate vs. the corporate. But what really interests me are the signs that, in some way, represent a hybrid of the two: signs that on one hand, signal themselves as members of a local community whose primary goal during this time is to keep people safe, and as members of a larger, global capitalist community who depend on revenue in order to survive. And this hybridity can manifest in a lot of ways. Let me show you some examples of what I mean:

Here’s a sign from Dragon Realm Collectibles….and it’s a great example of this hybridity for a few reasons. First of all, note the layout of the sign itself. Most of the sign is hand-written, but there is also the business card on the bottom. Although the sign wishes everyone to stay safe and take care, it also asks people to not let the fact that the store is closed “stop you from window shopping.” The sign also states that the store can be reached via Facebook, and people can shop through there (where they are still building their inventory). But it is also signed “Your friends @ Dragon Realm,” suggesting those intimate community links. So here, Dragon Realm positions itself as both a ‘responsible’ community establishment (‘responsible’ in the sense that they are shutting down to keep others safe) and an entity that brands itself, first and foremost, as a store.

Here’s another example of this hybridity at work, in a different way:

Heady Teddy’s, New Paltz, NY

Unlike Dragon Realm, Heady Teddy’s store sign is printed, which makes it reminiscent of the Starbucks sign above. “For the safety of the community,” as they begin, they are closing down their storefront, but spend much of the sign advertising the fact that they still take orders, are offering curbside and drop-off service, and still have an online store. But what is particularly interesting about this sign is what’s at the bottom: a quote from the Grateful Dead song “Touch of Grey.” Reaching out to ideologies of Woodstock and the greater Hudson Valley, and the “hippie” culture that it often evokes, the sign localizes itself even as it simultaneously brands itself as beyond the local. The signs around New Paltz, I'm finding, carry much more complex meanings than what their content implies. There are many themes that run through these signs: a fear and trepidation about the current situation, a hope that things will be better soon, a desire for things to return to normal. But when we look at these signs more closely, there are a lot of other things that become apparent. All these stores (with the exception of Starbucks) are independently-owned, and construct themselves as important parts of the local community, where people can eschew the crowding and frustration of big-box stores and spend money locally. But at the same time, a lot of these signs reach out to ideologies that talk about the importance of spending money, Which leads me to a very interesting conclusion: when people speak about alternatives to capitalist structures, they often create a binary opposition between "capitalism", with its Amazons and Wal-Marts and exploited workers and low wages, and "community", with its equality and egalitarianism and support by all. But in the face of something as simple as these signs, the distinction between capitalism and community gets very murky. Stores that see themselves as part of the community also can see themselves as structures willing (and, in fact, needing) to participate in larger capitalist ideologies to survive. It's a very interesting juxtaposition, I think. I dunno, just a thought. -E

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