If you ever have the occasion to ask Bob Kinsey questions about signs, make sure you’ve set aside the better part of a day for some answers. Even that will only scratch the surface.
The Salem resident, 88, is one member of a small family dynasty that’s been in the sign business for more than a century.
During that time, three generations of Kinseys, operating three separate companies, have changed the landscape of Virginia and beyond in big and small ways.
Kinseys have affixed letters on interior doors to doctors and lawyers’ offices. They’ve reversed-painted plate-glass windows at countless merchants’ shops; and created highway directional signs and huge roadside billboards.
Remember days gone by when many Dominion banks sported to have tall clock-thermometers outside their branches? If you saw one within 150 miles of Roanoke, chances are it was built and serviced by the Kinseys.
They designed and installed movie theater marquees in bigger cities, such as Norfolk, and small ones like Radford; hotels in Trenton, N.J., Raleigh, N.C. and Baltimore bore their work.
In Roanoke, Kinsey hotel signs stood or hung outside the Hotel Lee, which was the successor to the Shenandoah Hotel, and later the Hotel Earle, which was the successor to the Hotel Lee.
“All we had to do was add three letters and rearrange them,” Kinsey says. “That was about the time World War II was getting cranked up.” All of those are now gone.
In his Ridgewood Farms home, Kinsey has stacks of folders stuffed with photographs of all the above. To a certain extent, they constitute a historical chronicle of western Virginia commerce.
I discovered this by chance one day in June when Bob Kinsey called me here at the paper. It was to suggest a name for an Amtrak train to Roanoke. Somehow, the conversation drifted into signs, a subject I’m kind of batty about.
He invited me over to his house to meet his wife Lois, and see his collection. One visit turned into two and then a third. Kinsey owns an honest-to-goodness mother lode of signage from the past. A lot of those are old long gone; others are still with us.
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