By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
It’s a weekday afternoon, and John Oakley is casually sipping a glass of water watching his two children, Charlotte and Luke, bouncing on an area carpet in his Shrewsbury Avenue showroom. There’s a jump-rope contest coming up, and the kids need practice.
This is the Oakley family’s home away from home, a workshop where Oakley and his wife, Erin, design and fabricate signs; where his kids hang out and play with the family dog, Frank; and where the couple’s collection of roadside Americana dominates the building.
But Oakley’s business, Fantastic Signs, is as much a museum as it is a workspace and den, with fragments of local history that might otherwise be lost to the scrap heap tacked to just about every bit of wall space available.
There’s a rusted sign from the old Monmouth Street bus terminal in Red Bank (now North of The Border), the worn wood left behind from Victory Market (Front Street Trattoria), the once-familiar logo from Sal’s Tavern, an old staple on Shrewsbury Avenue.
Oakley’s prized possession, though, is crammed into the foyer of his shop: the monolithic Dorn’s bellows camera that used to hang over Wallace Street.
“Signs are art,” Oakley said.
What started as a hobby has turned into a lifestyle for Oakley and his family.
“This is it,” he said. “To spend time with my wife, my kids, my dog, I couldn’t imagine anything better.”
Oakley, who lives in Tinton Falls, has taken his lumps getting to this point. For the first decade he was in business, Oakley, a “sign purist,” slaved over his job orders, hustled to build a clientele base and battered his body digging post holes and occasionally taking a fall from a roof.
It’s paid dividends, and today Fantastic “couldn’t be better,” he said, with enough work coming in that Oakley can pick and choose what he’ll design and build each day.
“I’ve worked really hard. Really hard. I killed myself for the first 10 years in business,” he said, and now, “We try to pick the interesting jobs, the fun stuff.”
The fun stuff, he said, is taking a project from start to finish. Designing a logo, fabricating the sign, installing it and then moving on to the next project, he said, is what he and his wife thrive on.
“Like, a guy that’s just going into business and wants to draw a logo up and we can get one done and make business cards for him, or a new restaurant that needs signs and a menu,” Oakley said. “We like to take care of all of it.”
Quality, not quantity, is the standard, he said. Oakley recently did a job in Middletown where he designed and installed a sign, but when he stepped back to take a look at it, wasn’t satisfied with his choice to use vinyl as the material. So he completely reworked it, free of charge, with plexiglass.
“I couldn’t put that much work into it and leave it not at 100 percent, just because I’m a purist,” he said. “We make signs. We don’t put letters on a board and call it a day.”
He’s not a fan of what he calls “sign crimes” cheap, shabby work that does a customer an injustice, he said. There have been heated arguments with business owners over what they want to get from Oakley, he said.
“Sometimes it’s like, I know what you want, but this is what you need,” he said.
The Oakleys seem to have been bred into this line of work.
Erin Oakley’s grandfather, Gene Harlan, invented the thermometer/clock sign that once was ubiquitous on bank facades in small-town America. Her grandmother would film each sign installation, and the family tradition was to watch the films on Christmas day.
Oakley has been a sign admirer and collector all his life.
“My friend and I used to go out on sign quests,” he said. “You find an old, abandoned drive-in or a farm, we’d collect them you’d say, collect them without permission.”
The couple have passed down their passion to their children. When Erin asks their son, Luke, 8, what he wants to be when he grows up, there’s no hesitation.
“Signmaker,” he said.
Before Oakley went into business 25 years ago, he was toiling at a job he loathed at the now-defunct Red Bank Register. That’s when he took to heart the adage, “Find something you love to do and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Oakley, despite years of long hours and hustling, hasn’t worked a day in 25 years, he said.
“It was a hobby that just turned into a job. I was fortunate enough to get into something I really really love to do,” he said. “You can’t ask for more.”