By Adam Rosen
It’s not exactly news that Asheville’s roadways provoke strong feelings. Whether it’s a widening project, dieting project, pothole replacement scheme or some other infrastructure-related disruption, area residents love few things more than complaining about the shortcomings of local streets. (And hotels. And parking. And tourists. And new buildings. And lack of Costcos. Wait — what was I saying?)
Far less reported are the secret grins and delighted groans one local transit corridor inspires daily through its plethora of clever roadside signs and business names. Roughly running from Mostly Import Auto Repair (formerly Mostly Automotive) on Biltmore Avenue to Thyme in the Garden on Weaverville Highway, this pun-sodden stretch is a welcome sight for wordplay fans and weary commuters alike.
The heart and soul of the district is arguably the 1.2-mile span of Merrimon Avenue from its intersection with Spears Avenue (site of the Clothes Encounters consignment shop) to Ottari Road. Along this stretch, some 10 or more purveyors ply their puns in public. Call it Pun Corridor. Or Tin Pun Alley.
The funny-message makers on this stretch are a diverse bunch, including restaurants, a framing store, car repair and oil-change shops (Valvoline’s perennial fall message: “The Pumpkin Spice Oil Change Is Back”), Realtors, insurance agents, an Ace Hardware (recent marquee: “Happy Holid-ace”) and more, all of them vying for valuable attention. One longtime pun dealer, Larry’s Performance Werks at the intersection of Merrimon and Clairmont Avenue, even opts for visual quips; its most recent message, visible on its display window right before Christmas, was a graphic of three garden hoes aligned in a row.
Methods to the madness
Jeff Miller, co-owner of Luella’s Bar-B-Que along with his wife, Ashley, says he came up with the idea of making funny signs after first setting up shop in 2009. “All I can say is, for some reason, my instinct was to be able to talk to the neighborhood,” he says. “I was like, ‘I want to change the message sign, I want to be able to talk to the community,’ as a part of our brand.”
When the Asheville Realty Group established its second office at the intersection of Colonial Place and Merrimon in 2021, it had big shoes to fill. The company inherited its large sign from State Farm agent Rebecca Sandoval, who had been making North Asheville residents and passersby chuckle and/or shake their heads since 2005.
Despite Sandoval’s legacy literally looming over them, Asheville Realty owner Hadley Cropp and self-proclaimed company “Marquee Engineer” Leslie Manner say they’ve embraced the opportunity to make their own mark on Merrimon. After being hired last summer, Manner proved her wit (and expert Googling skills) in quick order, advancing rapidly from physical sign-changer to messaging committee co-chair.
Business owners say their brainstorming process ranges from completely free-form to somewhat systematic. When Sandoval first moved into her Merrimon space, she says, her ideas jumped off from a “a little red book of quotations and quips” a policyholder had given her. For the marquee she now curates above her West Asheville office on Patton Avenue, she works closely with account manager Humberto Miranda, who says he often gets sign-writing inspiration from current events and everyday life. He’ll take a picture or make a note to himself anytime he comes across something that might make good sign fodder, like Will Smith’s Oscars slap heard around the world in March 2022. (The resulting message? “Things we don’t talk about 1) Fight Club, 2) Bruno, 3) Jada.”)
Miller and his staff take their mandate seriously enough to rely on two sets of spreadsheets to track potential bits. Then again, he adds, “Sometimes it happens over texts with friends. And sometimes it happens in email. Sometimes it happens over a whiskey.”
Jean Stryker, owner of BlackBird Frame & Art, consulted “a book that had some funny marquee stuff” to inspire her sign’s current message: “No Half Measures … Jingle ALL the Way!”
“The book gave me the idea about the ‘jingle all the way thing,’ but the way they had put it was not appropriate for our purposes. And so we noodled over it,” Stryker explains. “The ‘no half measures thing’ is more elegant, plus, it’s a play on what we do here. Because we obviously have to measure things.”
While there isn’t any formal coordination between sign makers, their proximity means they can’t help but be influenced by each other’s handiwork. Those Xpress spoke with consistently mentioned Mostly Import Auto Repair as a major influence. Manner with Asheville Realty says she makes a point to look at the Luella’s sign “every day.”
For the love of funny
Whatever their methods, the punmeisters of Asheville agree that it’s essential to get several sets of eyes on a message before it’s promoted to prime time. The vast majority of the feedback the businesses get is positive. But with over 20,000 cars a day passing by, according to N.C. Department of Transportation statistics on Merrimon Avenue, inevitably someone will be displeased by a show of wit, no matter how inoffensive it seems. And if punsters slip up with a flagrant typo or head-scratching reference, they’re sure to hear about it.
Miller discovered this the hard way after a Valentine’s Day message. It was intended to say “Pork. The One You Love”— only the sign was missing the period. According to Sandoval, a daily Merrimon walker once objected to her message wishing peace to all of “mankind,” arguing that it should have used the more inclusive “humankind.”
Other complaints have been more niche. One caller insisted to Cropp and Manner, in response to the message “If cauliflower can become pizza, you can become a homeowner” that “not everybody likes cauliflower.”
It’s not all pun and games on Pun Corridor. Many business owners understand that with great pun power comes great responsibility, and they frequently offer up one side of their signs to local nonprofits and event organizers free of charge. Given their large, captive (and occasionally stuck) audience, it’s a great way for spreading the word about donation drives, neighborhood festivals, Little League sign-ups and other important local happenings.
But it is mostly pun and games. The corridor’s business owners and employees say they get a lot of satisfaction from showcasing their personality through their signs. “Lately, the world has been so negative that it’s kind of nice to just lighten up and have some fun,” says Cropp. “We all like being creative here,” adds Stryker. “And this is just another way to [do so].”
One thing’s for sure: In the wake of the intense feelings kicked up by the Merrimon Avenue road diet, a perfectly punny message is something everyone can feast on. (Except, perhaps, those who hate cauliflower.)