• Elly Tier

In his new book Good Old Neon: Signs You’re in Chicago (Lake Claremont Press), photographer Nick Freeman partly celebrates the city’s neon signs and partly eulogizes what he considers a dying art form. “The Chicago area was once ablaze with colorful neon signs vying for attention,” he writes in his foreword.
“Today these vibrant, unique artifacts have been largely replaced by charmless, rear-lit Lexan panel signs and the channel lettering of national chains.”

Tom Brickler, owner of Neon Shop Fishtail, would beg to differ. Since he first opened the store in Uptown in 1986, he and his small crew have made hundreds of neon signs by hand. Originally, he called the store Fishtail, after the burner he used to heat and bend the glass tubing, but he got too many calls from people asking the price of salmon or lobster, so he added “Neon Shop.”

“The neon thing was just about dead in the 70s,” Brickler says. “It was just for old people. It picked up in the 80s. There’s been talk about how LED has hurt neon. It hasn’t. Do you want jelly-bean lights in front of your store or a piece of glass that glows all around?”

The interior of Neon Shop Fishtail is illuminated entirely by glowing neon. “I like to be around neon,” Brickler says. The 55-year-old doesn’t go out at night very much anymore, but if he did, he wouldn’t be able to drive very far without passing some of his work. “It’s a real trip,” he says. “In 30 years, I’ve done some storefronts five times, from fortune tellers to Fortune 500. I’m part of a great Chicago institution, in a small way.”

He declines to choose a favorite. “My next piece is the one I’ve put my heart and soul into,” he says. I’m not satisfied with the same method over and over. I want to make someone hit the brakes.”

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