WATERVILLE — As a friendly “sign war” circulated among businesses throughout the city over the past two weeks, The Barber Parlor’s business took off right with it.

“We had a bunch of new people walk in today and our social media has gone through the roof,” said Tanya Lennon, owner of the College Avenue business. “We were really busy before, but this has definitely added to it.”

Call it a sign of the times as local business owners seek out humor and lightness as the challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic enter a second year.

Beginning at the end of April, a handful of area businesses began engaging in the fun. Establishments took to their electronic and changing-letter signs to poke fun at one another with slight jabs, taunts and some friendly competition.

Although not every business can directly attribute burgeoning business from the exercise, it’s been “fun, laughs and smiles,” said Wendy Grenier, data systems manager at the Alfond Youth and Community Center on North Street.

The #centralMainesignwar hashtag is popularizing on Facebook and many of the posts get hundreds of engagements.

State Farm Insurance agent Michael Lee, known for past mirthful messages about khaki pants on his changing letter sign at 328 Main St., is the ringleader of it all. It all began when a bunch Lee’s friends tagged him on a post about a sign war circulating in Virginia.

“The world has kind of needed some humor and something to look forward to,” Lee said. “I think with the nature of the COVID world the last year and a half, I think it’s given people something fun to look forward to.”

With a little prodding, Lee made the first move. On April 27, he posted a casual message on his sign: “Hey Wendy’s, want to start a sign war.” After all, Lee eats there “quite a bit,” he said, as it’s directly across the street from his upper Main Street headquarters.

Wendy’s responded with: “State Farm, we’re always ready to square up.”

And thus, the central Maine sign war was born.

Business picked up at Wendy’s during the time of the sign war, though some of that is likely attributed to the McDonald’s restaurant across being closed for renovations. Nonetheless, Wendy’s manager Andrea Nickerson said she tries to get the sign set before 9 a.m. daily.

“Sometimes I have a little bit of a time figuring out what I want to say,” Nickerson said. “We’re getting great feedback and it gives people something to look forward to.”

Within a few days of the Wendy’s and Michael Lee battle, sign war participants expanded and continues to grow quickly. The Alfond Youth & Community Center, Silver Street Tavern and The Barber Parlor joined in.

On Saturday, Silver Street’s rotating sign read “Hey AYCC, after your workout, come to happy hour to treat yo self.”

Jayda Sharp, a manager at Silver Street, responded to a challenge from the AYCC and friend Sawyer Boulette to join in.

“Everyone around town seems to be loving it,” Sharp said. “It’s good entertainment, and people need something positive, funny and happy in the world today.”

On Friday, the Alfond Youth Center seemed to be taking aim at The Barber Parlor, with one of its electronic messages stating: “Our childcare staff is a CUT above the rest.”

The sign war has spread beyond Waterville, too, with Charlotte Cow from The Smiling Cow in Boothbay Harbor joining in. Even the Central Aroostook County Chamber of Commerce is planning its own sign wars. The employee who dresses as Charlotte Cow, who asked to remain anonymous, said they saw the sign war on Facebook. Charlotte Cow can be seen all over the midcoast region, not just at the store.

“I think people love it,” said Charlotte Cow, who has heard from friends in Massachusetts. A sign war in Montana has begun.

Pyro City Maine Fireworks in Winslow joined in Thursday, coming at Lee with “We are in, let the fireworks begin!” Pyro City manager Vern Carlow is in charge of his store’s signs. Lee is his daughter’s agent, so Carlow decided he’d jump in with his eight-year-old business.

“I can’t see how it would hurt because the more exposure you can get, the more people you reach, the more people know you’re here,” Carlow said.

GRUB Restaurant, owned by Waterville Mayor Jay Coelho, will soon join in. His sign arrives by week’s end.

Meldon Bailey, product coordinator at Wendy’s restaurant on upper Main Street in Waterville, puts up a new sign message Friday morning outside the business. Scott Monroe/Morning Sentinel

“It’s lighthearted and businesses are playing with each other,” Coelho said. “This is community.”

Although Lee himself hasn’t seen a major spike in insurance business, he’s become somewhat of a local celebrity.

“People now flag me down at Hannaford when I get my groceries if I’m wearing my State Farm shirt,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s generated a huge spike in the insurance business, but it’s created a fun atmosphere for me and the team and around town there’s quite a little buzz going.”

After watching the sign war develop for a few days, The Barber Parlor’s Lennon  ordered a sign from Minuteman Signs in Augusta. She just couldn’t ignore the wars.

“They were having too much fun,” Lennon said, “and I wanted to play too.”


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