Beyond Our Borders
6:48 am
Thu April 17, 2014

Kansas City Grocer's Hand-Painted Signs Are A Lost Art In The Modern Age

Every morning, William Rosser starts his day painting signs.

The 77-year-old butcher and owner of Wild Woody's Happy Foods on 31st Street and Myrtle Avenue in Kansas City, Mo., has been painting grocery signs for more than 50 years.

"I make sure every display's got a sign on it. That's my whole goal," he says.

Rosser's store is one of few remaining independent grocery stores in the area. It serves Kansas City's east side — an area largely considered to be a food desert.

He has owned grocery stores in Kansas City since 1961, when he opened Snappy Foods on 27th Street and Cleveland Avenue. His father also owned grocery stores, and like Rosser, hand-painted his grocery signs.

But that was a different time, a time when many — even most — grocery stores hand-painted product and pricing signs. Today, more than 50 years later, it is a lost art.

Computers and scanning technologies all but killed the hand-painted grocery sign. Rosser says all the stores use computer generated signs now, but he has no desire — or the skills — to use one. Plus, he says, the computer signs are often small or hard to read and he wants to make sure his customers know the price of the product before they get in line to make a purchase.

"I am nothing like you would have with a professional sign painter," says Rosser. "But I am quick and you can read them."

Rosser paints roughly 30 signs a day in what he calls an "easy-reading country style." Meaning, it is easy to read and in the bubbly, bold style of old country stores.

He has modernized a bit from the paint-brush-and-butcher-paper days. He uses special water-based ink and and huge markers on poster board of all sizes.

His signs plaster every window, aisle and counter in the store, advertising prices, sales and specials.

"I have wondered a lot of times when I go by big stores that they do not have signs in the window," he says. "I want signs in my window, because it makes it look like there is something going on."

Rosser says he was born with a bit of sign-painting blood, but most of his talent just comes from practice — a practice driven by what he says is a fanatic love of hand-painted grocery signs. 

"Everybody don't believe in signs like I do, but they sell. And that is what I'm here for — to sell," he says.

Rosser doesn't have someone in line to take over his sign duties when he is unable to continue. But he says he knows his employees will get some kind of sign on his items, because they know he believes in signs.

You can see Rosser's hand-painted signs in person at Wild Woody's Happy Foods at 4019 East 31st St. in Kansas City.

This look at Kansas City's east side is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what's being done to bridge or dissolve them. Be a source for Beyond Our Borders: Share your perspective and experiences east of Troost with KCUR.