Signs of the Times

Cape Cod Life  /  May 2021 /

Writer: Allyson Plessner

Chatham Sign Shop owner Bob Lacy has used his adventurous spirit and talent for seeking out the unexpected to create an incredible legacy.

“It’s a great place to come to work,” enthuses Bob Lacy about being a business owner on Cape Cod. Owner and founder of Chatham Sign Shop, Lacy has deemed himself a “true washashore,” having made his first trip to the Cape by way of sailboat almost 40 years ago. He took up a mooring off the shores of Chatham and officially made Chatham Harbor his backyard, starting down a path that would lead him to a lifelong love of Cape Cod — a love he still celebrates today with his beautiful craftmanship. 

When Lacy wasn’t enjoying life as a liveaboard back in those first few years before he became a permanent resident of Chatham, he spent his summers surfing in Hawaii and his winters backcountry skiing; an adventurer at heart, he often found himself conferring with elks, outrunning avalanches, and dodging grizzly bears. “All with no cell phones!” he laughs. And of all the many places in the world Lacy has found himself exploring, his art has been there too; Lacy has run Chatham Sign Shop for over 31 years now, and his handmade signs have made it to every continent. 

Sign making wasn’t Lacy’s first venture in owning a business; his love for craftmanship started years before, in a Sears department store of all places. “They were giving a demonstration with a machine that functioned as a crosscut saw,” explains Lacy, “and I thought, ‘I’ve got to get one of those.’” So, newfangled mechanical saw in hand, Lacy left that Sears and rented a shop in Waltham that eventually grew into a successful furniture company. “We developed into a 10,000 square foot furniture factory with 24 employees, and it took off. There was no IKEA back then,” jokes Lacy. “After I sold the company, I retired…sort of.”

Lacy spent his “retirement” touring the glacial landscape of Alaska, skiing any mountain he could climb, and surfing any wave he saw during the warmer months — he did his best to satisfy that adventuring spirit of his. Eventually, Lacy moved the boat that would become his home for a few years from Maine to Chatham, where he saw an ad for Hyannis Sign Shop. He bought that shop, as well as two other shops in the area, and merged them into Chatham Sign Shop. Today, Lacy still works in the shop every day, and at 87, he has successfully outrun the perilous monotony of life as a retiree.  

“When I started Chatham Sign Shop in 1989,” explains Lacy, “I also bought a plotter and a computer. That was state of the art back then — everyone else was making signs by hand. Someone told me that Chatham wasn’t ready for anything newfangled like that, but here we are 31 years later.” 

Though Lacy was ahead of his time technology-wise, each of his signs is still hand painted and carved, and it’s the individualism of each piece that Lacy loves best. For him, sign making is the perfect blend of personal and architectural; it takes empathy and understanding to know what a customer wants as well as a designer’s eye to execute a spectacular product. “We’ve made over 200 signs for people in the area,” says Lacy, “and that’s just residential properties. We also hand carve signs for businesses and residences all over the world. The fun part of the job for me is satisfying those customers. Every sign is unique, and people are just so appreciative when they see the final product.”

Lacy’s work not only adds beauty to the homes and businesses where his signs are found, it also contributes to the seafaring history of the region. Particularly with the resurgence of the popular tradition of naming one’s house, quarterboards — gilded, ornamental signs traditionally used to display the name of a ship — can often be seen along the sides of houses and barns, not only in Chatham, but across the Cape. And, the place to go for a one-of-a-kind, detailed quarterboard is, of course, Chatham Sign Shop. 

In the past, quarterboards from shipwrecks would wash ashore and be scavenged as decoration for local homes. Today, naming one’s house is a great way to add character and value to a property. A home with a name has an air of distinguishment — just think of The Breakers, the Vanderbilt family home in Newport, or Highclere, the Crawley estate in “Downton Abbey.” And, since homes play such a major role in one’s life, it seems only fitting they should have a name. Especially in one of the seafaring villages that dot the Cape, a hand carved quarterboard is the perfect way to christen a house and an intricate nod to the history of the region. “Chatham started the trend,” comments Lacy, and its one that Chatham Sign Shop is happy and well-equipped to continue.

Images that are common on quarterboards, like scallop shells to indicate a connection to the sea, and pineapples to show welcome, also harken back to whaling times. Lacy is a master at embracing the tradition, crafting elegant curves and using 23-karat gold leaf enamel to decorate his signs. Deeply incised letters add a touch of intricacy that also honors the history of the craft. He says his work is both a nod to the craftsmen that have handed down the traditions and a step into the future as new generations come up with fun and personal names for their homes. “I crafted one sign with a wave on it that said ‘awave from it all,’” notes Lacy about the creativity of his customers. 

Just like that sign denotes, Lacy too, is more than happy to live a quiet life in Chatham away from it all. “I love our little community and the customers that I get to see in person,” he says. Of course, Lacy’s storied legacy wouldn’t be possible without the love and guidance of a strong, resourceful woman. The gold leafing to the life that Lacy has built in Chatham—the detail and beauty that brings it all together—is his wife, Debbie. 

“I can’t tell you enough how much she amazes me,” emphasizes Lacy. “Debbie is really the one who has grown this business, and she blows me away with what she can do.” When Lacy met his wife in 1999—out dancing, of course—she was a nurse. When he showed her the sign shop, though, he says she was fascinated and immediately knew she wanted to work there. “She got her wish,” he laughs. “She really built this thing. She does all the gold leafing and trains all of our employees. The artwork of it all—that’s all her.”

“Sometimes, the best things in life are unexpected surprises,” continues Lacy. A ship long ago would wash ashore off Chatham, bringing with it spoils for mooncussers (pirates who preyed on shipwrecks) to scavenge, including, perhaps, a quarterboard. That quarterboard would one day find itself above someone’s garage, adding a nautical twist to a home and providing an homage to the treacherous work of grand five and six masted ships that had fallen victim to the renowned shoals of Chatham. Soon there are names hanging high and proud on other garages, and then 150 years later, people across the world are calling Chatham Sign Shop for their own quarterboards to adorn their homes. 

“That’s how I think of my wife. She went from a nurse to an integral part of a sign shop, turning out gorgeous oil paintings within just a few months, as if she was Michelangelo’s daughter,” says Lacy. “Like I said, sometimes the best things in life are completely unexpected.”

Visit Bob Lacy at the shop at 40 Kent Place, Chatham or online at chathamsignshop.com!

Allyson Plessner

Allyson Plessner is a former editorial intern for Cape Cod Life and now works for the publication as a staff writer and digital media coordinator. Born in Florida, Allyson has been a lifelong summer resident of the Cape. She is a recent alumna of the College of Charleston, located in Charleston, South Carolina, where she completed bachelor’s degrees in both English and Spanish. In her free time, Allyson is an avid sailor, beach-goer, and—like her fellow Cape Cod Life colleagues—a dog-lover.