Jagged Edges, Awkward Situations, Slow Escapes

As much as I dislike awkward situations, you would think I could have avoided this one.

In addition to Arts & Crafts, I also collect (on a much smaller scale) old metal advertising signs. I only buy signs that I can hang or display in my office, and I only buy signs of significance to me, including signs from defunct Asheville businesses.

Last week my wife Leigh Ann and I were driving through Lake Lure when we stopped at an antiques shop that was closed. Peering through the storefront windows, I could see that the shop was a treasure trove of old signs. Two in particular caught my eye: a 2’ x 3’ yellow Chimney Rock Park sign and a 10’ long Biltmore Hardware Company sign hanging from the ceiling.

The Biltmore Hardware Sign really got my heart pumping, as I could immediately envision it hanging from the center beam in the vaulted ceiling in my office. The lettering seemed in good shape and I loved its size. I took down the email address posted on the door, headed home and typed out an inquiry.

An email came back the next day: the 10’ Biltmore sign was priced at $400; the Chimney Rock sign at $175. I tapped out a quick response, asking if they would take $450 for the pair — in cash (always a good negotiating tool this time of year). The email came back in the affirmative and we set up a day and a time for us to pick them up.

I arrived with cash in hand and two pieces of plywood in the back of my pickup to support the 10’ Biltmore Hardware Company sign. The owner was not there, but he had sent over a young woman who had just started working for him. She was standing inside the door, a pleasant smile on her face and our three signs leaning next to her.

Yes, three. (You see where this is headed, don’t you?)

What I had not noticed the previous week as I peered through the window at the room full of signs was that the 10’ Biltmore Hardware Company sign was, in reality, two 5’ signs. At some point in the distant past the sign had been unceremoniously cut in half, probably by a demolition worker with a reciprocating saw. It was a jagged, uneven, rusty cut that I had not seen when it was hanging from the ceiling.

And so we stood in awkward silence. She waited with an invoice in hand, expecting $450 in cash from me. I tried to recall the wording of my email. Had I bought the sign, sight unseen? Or was I protected by an unwritten, unspoken “upon passing inspection” clause?

My first reaction was to swallow hard, pay the girl and take the signs home, knowing that any enjoyment I would ever experience would be washed away with each glance at the ragged scar between the two pieces.

But — I bought myself some time, as I strolled around the shop looking at the assortment of signs and advertising memorabilia the owner had accumulated. As I did, I realized that although I had not included an “upon passing inspection” clause in my email, the owner had neglected to warn me that the sign had been cut in half – right through the letter “a.”

“Two wrongs don’t make a right,” my father would always say, but in this case I came to the conclusion that the two wrongs negated each other – and the sale.

I apologized profusely to the girl, explaining that the owner had not informed me that the sign had been cut in half – and that I was not trying to negotiate an even lower price. I simply wanted to escape an awkward situation with nothing other the memory of it to remind me of a valuable lesson.

While it is a rare and wonderful experience to again feel the thrill of a discovery, never let your emotions dim your vision – or cause you to forget to add an “upon passing inspection” clause to any communication you have with a seller.

Until next Monday,

Bruce Johnson