FLEMING ISLAND -- Toby Norris hired Chris Peteny as a glass bender for his neon sign shop 13 years ago. Peteny had been laid off from a previous glass-bending career during a downturn in the neon …
JACKSONVILLE – After 35 years as a glass bender, Toby Norris said he will retire – eventually.
“Sure, I’ll retire,” Norris said. “But they’ll have to wheel me out of here.”
A 35-year veteran of the craft, Norris started Norris Neon 17 years ago in a shop on Blanding Boulevard on Jacksonville’s Westside.
While his shop survived the Great Recession, Norris and his business partner Chris Petney – whom Norris hired 13 years ago – agree that a popularity dip the industry suffered hasn’t quite recovered yet.
Years ago, Norris paid a shop full of glass benders, but today, it’s just Norris and Petney. Norris, 74, started the shop by pairing a knack for haggling over antique signs and his adoration for neon into a business model.
The humor is still there, and the gumption of a salesmen isn’t something that scrubs away in the sink. But his knees aren’t what they used to be, a side effect he said from a two-year stint in the Vietnam War as a helicopter door gunner.
So Petney tends to the shop and performs the lion’s share of the work while Norris fields calls and tells stories. There’s a consensus they mesh together well.
Norris Neon remains one of the last remnants of the lost ‘old-school’ business models where an owner change means an honest word and a firm handshake rather than paperwork and red tape.
The agreement works well for the two of them. By his own admission, Norris has always been a boss anyway – he enjoys being the “guy with the big cigar,” he said.
Now he wants to make Petney the guy with the big cigar.
Since the popularization of LED signs, however, the industry has dramatically changed. By Petney’s estimate, the business has since lost 95 percent of its revenue source to the easily manufactured and now ubiquitous advertising form of LED.
So their business model had to evolve. “When I started doing neon and in the beginning, that’s all I had to do, because there was so much work to do,” Norris said.
Now, they get a portion of their business from sign repairs and antique restorations. Norris said these bids can come from as far north as the Carolinas. Adaptation is one of Petney’s strong suits.
“When I was young, I didn’t go to the playground, I went to the shop,” Petney said, referring to his father’s sign shop in Pennsylvania, where he grew up.
His father’s shop dabbled in signs of all shapes, sizes and materials. It’s a talent Petney said he carries into the industry.
But he sees a renaissance in the industry. The boomerang nature of styles and fashions seems to have come back around lately – especially in the world of craft breweries.
“I do think that exposed neon is starting to make a bit of a turn, I think everyone likes that little 50s retro look right now. It’s a lot of fun to do and it looks so much better in the windows than LEDs do,” he said.
He’s confident the industry will remain in demand.
“I have no concerns of that whatsoever,” Petney said. “I think that there will always be a use for it, and as I get older, more people are going to drop out of it. I think I’m in a good spot. There’s not a lot of younger people doing it these days.”
Glass bending is certainly an artisan niche to inhabit. Creating art with light is a fickle business to be in. Petney’s day starts at 5:45 a.m.
He uses a 700-degree flame to melt the glass where he wants it to bend while he blows into it to keep it the glass from collapsing. From there, he attaches electrodes to the glass and pipes argon and neon gas into the tube and seals off the ends.
It’s heavy machinery. The shop buzzes as much as the neon signs do. Small bits of glass crunch underfoot and the heavy smell of petrol flames hangs polka-dotted around the room.
Petney begins to shut the lights off in the crowded shop as part of his closing ritual. It’s about time to pick his daughter up from school. From the back of the shop, Norris banters back and forth with him about their plans.
“We’re partners, and that’s just the way it is,” he said, sitting in a swivel chair. “I’m fine with what we’ve got planned.” Norris said to wait until Petney is in his 70s, and maybe he’ll find someone to replace him.
“Well you’ve earned it, you’ve earned it,” Petney said. The neon dims.