Thriftway enters digital era with electronic sign on the highway

A worker installs the new sign at Thrifway last week.  - Elizabeth Shepherd/Staff Photo
A worker installs the new sign at Thrifway last week.
— image credit: Elizabeth Shepherd/Staff Photo

For many years, the neon Thriftway sign near the intersection of Vashon Highway and Bank Road has been an Island landmark and point of reference, but last week, the sign got a new, more modern look.

The lower half of the sign — a place where store specials were spelled out on an old-fashioned reader board — was replaced on Wednesday by a black electronic sign, which can be changed at the touch of a keyboard inside the store.

It’s the second electronic sign to appear on Vashon in the space of several months. Last winter, Island Lumber erected a large new sign with full color digital display capability — the first of its kind on Vashon — in front of its store, which is right across the street from Thriftway.

Both signs have stirred controversy and sparked conversations among Islanders about what kind of signage is appropriate for Vashon — an unincorporated swath of King County that lacks its own sign ordinance.

Some say the sign is garish and un-Vashon-like; others, particularly Thriftway management, say the sign makes enormous sense.

Kim Williams, Thrift-way’s store director, said the grocery store’s decision to go electronic was made for several reasons, including safety and liability issues posed by the fact that employees had to climb an extension ladder to change the lettering on the sign.

Thriftway employees were

not the only people who had clambered up onto the sign to change its message, he added.

“Sometimes teenagers got up there in the middle of the night and made inappropriate comments by changing the letters around,” he said. “Some were funny, and others couldn’t be printed in the paper. We always tried to get up there and fix it before the morning commute started, but now that won’t happen anymore.”

Williams cited the sign’s age, condition and difficulty to repair — it was erected in the mid-1960s — as other reasons for the change.

The new sign, which has LED display lights as opposed to the old sign’s incandescent bulbs, is also more energy efficient, Williams said. The new sign will also make it easier for the store to display timely community messages about upcoming local events.

“It was a necessary change,” Williams said. “It’s just a progression, like computers taking the place of typewriters and color TV taking the place of black and white.”

But not all Islanders are happy about the new sign.

A new Facebook group, dubbed “Vashon Thriftway & Island Lumber should take down their casino signs,” appeared on the social networking site last Tuesday, the same day that a crane arrived in front of the store to take away the old reader board. The group invited anyone who was “disgusted by the new signage at Vashon Thriftway and Island Lumber” to join the group, in order to “send a message to other Island businesses that we don’t like these signs.”

By the end of the week, the group had 23 members, including several Islanders who posted an array of critical comments about the sign. But the group also included one Thriftway employee, Brian Henderson, who defended the store’s decision in a lengthy post on the page’s wall.

Other Islanders — beyond the online confines of Facebook — were also talking about the sign.

Claudia Gross Shader, an Islander active in several civic groups, said she was horrified by the new sign.

“It’s really not very much in the spirit of Vashon,” Gross-Shader said. “It’s a shame that in a community that is so creative, Thriftway couldn’t have come up with a more creative response. Why couldn’t they have had a sign like Dig, and paid a high school art student to change the chalk art once a week? We could have thought of something that meets Thriftway’s needs and also meets the needs of the community.”

But other Islanders were more sanguine and philosophical about the sign.

Paul Beytebiere, the owner of Bob’s Bakery, stepped outside his bakey, wiping his hands on his flour-covered chef’s apron, and looked up at Thriftway’s new sign as it was being hooked up last Wednesday.

He laughed when a passerby asked him if he was going to get a new electronic sign, too.

“Does it look like it?” he said as he pointed to the bakery’s weather-beaten sandwich board, propped on the sidewalk outside the door to his shop. “This is it.”

Beytebiere shrugged when he was asked how he felt about the new sign.

“You can’t really do much about it,” he said. “It’s there, and we all have to change as time goes on.”

Discuss signage on Vashon

A committee of Islanders is currently working to revise Vashon’s town plan, and according to committee member Natalie Sheard, the group plans to tackle the issue of signage at upcoming meetings. Vashon’s current town plan lacks any restrictions on the type of signs that can be erected by Island businesses, but that could change when a new plan is adopted.

If approved by Vashon-Maury Island Community Council and the King County Council, the new plan will become part of King County’s new comprehensive plan, set to take effect in 2012.

To find out more about the town plan process or join the town plan committee, visit Sheard also encouraged Islanders to e-mail her at to share their opinions about signage on Vashon.

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