A Typography of Reuse

Posted inType Tuesday

by Susan Hassler Dietrich

Editor’s Note: We received an email from the author introducing us to this incredible store, so we invited her to write about it.

The buildings are gone, but the letters survive. I live by a parking lot piled high with those letters. Asphalt forms the baseline if assembled into a paragraph; chain link fences justify them. Individually, the letters are four inches or four feet tall, a gathering of signage letterforms of all sizes, fonts, and colors, all askew, quietly waiting for new words.

Little kids (or corresponding designers) can play with them, stack them, crash them, and dance with them. Spell with them. It used to be that typographers always interacted physically with letters, whether wood or metal or photo proofs. The process sparked creativity.

Everyone here in the neighborhood knows about the letters. “Oh yeah, the letter place.” That would be hunt & gather. Over 28 years, owner Kristi Stratton’s “vintage amusement store” in Minneapolis has sold oddities and curiosities, letters included. The letter lot just evolved. Today, it flourishes thanks to her long-established network of construction workers, friends, and salvagers who call their letter finds in, set a price, and drop them off. 

I was one. I called Stratton about a dumpster full of “Gap” letters I found in an alley behind a remodeling project—such an undignified place for those beautiful letters. The workers said I could have them, so I grabbed one, and Stratton rescued the rest.

This collection, however, requires a unique typographer. Meet Charlotte Staid. She’s mastered an area of typography you don’t get in design school. Markup is irrelevant; what point size would a letter four feet high be? And the fonts, only some are recognizable — in condensed, script, or italic forms. Exclamation marks, question marks, and periods, too. All in colors. Then there are mysterious letters belonging to some long lost logo, designer unknown.

Typographer of reuse

Staid sorts the new arrivals and fills orders. Typesetting becomes a matter of hunting and climbing, with a bit of snow shoveling. If you need a red, lowercase “h,” Staid knows where it might be. Needless to say, there’s no spell check.

“r”’s are invasive

Nor are there alphabets. Staid has problem letters. Without intact alphabets, availability is an issue. “The letters have ‘scrabble value,'” she says. “Rare, high-value scrabble letters are just as scarce and prized on the lot. Like the ‘j,’ it’s always a problem. I take the top of a ‘t’ and splice it into part of a ‘u.’ It becomes a ‘j.'” Fusing all sides and surfaces of plastic and metal is part of her typesetting skills. It gives a new meaning to “make ready.

She digs out or sets “Will you marry me?” or “Congratulations!” or simply a graduate’s name for the front yard. Or she can compose them as decorations: “Eat” or “Joy.” Or find perfectly entangled initials for a bookshelf. Sometimes, Staid arrives in the morning to words on the sidewalk from the previous night’s fence-jumping typesetters, “profound but mostly profane.”

One customer mounted a “ya” on his garage; then his next-door neighbor thought it would be hysterical to respond to their “ya” with ubiquitous Minnesota “no”….ya no? 

These piles of weathered old letters survive to speak from new buildings and say new things. In Minnesota, we celebrate creative reuse, ya, no?

Visit hunt & gather at 4944 Xerxes Avenue South in Minneapolis, or check them out on Instagram, Facebook, or X (Twitter).

Photos courtesy of Susan Dietrich and Charlotte Staid.