Ten years ago, back when people were still allowed to gather in droves, there was a very real fear the Winter Olympics in Vancouver would suffer due to the city’s mild climate.
Obviously we all know how that story panned out. But a decade ago, in that period leading up to the Games, Bob Gibson, co-founder of Contact Printing in North Vancouver, decided to use his soapbox to skewer the topic du jour.
While a look inside Gibson’s business would suggest a company offering a slew of commercial printing services, many might know it best for what lies outside: the sign at the corner of Forbes Avenue and West Second Street. For years, it's what he’s used to promote their work – and, more commonly, provide passersby with a good laugh.
“When the Olympics were approaching, there was no snow on the mountains and everyone was quite concerned about how we’re going to pull it off. I think I put up there: OLYMPIC ATHLETES WELCOME, BRING YOUR OWN SNOW,” says Gibson.
When the Games actually started, and the mood around town swayed from livid to lively, he quickly took the phrase down, notes Gibson. “I think I got more in the spirit of just supporting the athletes,” he says.
Much like This Is Spinal Tap or California's In-N-Out Burger, the sign that adorns the outside of Contact Printing is something of a cult favourite for North Shore residents. Everyone seems to have at least a passing memory of coming across one of Gibson’s five-line witticisms during the preceding three decades.
Gibson started Contact Printing in 1981 alongside his father. The business involved – and still does – general commercial printing, which has evolved substantially over the years, says Gibson, now 63. Contact Printing does everything from promotional work for real estate agents and developers, corporate stationary such as business cards and letterheads, as well as instruction manuals and catalogues.
“Basically, we do almost anything that people want us to do,” says Gibson. “I was a kid when we started this really. But we’re still here, technology hasn’t killed us; it’s trying.”
Contact Printing moved to its current location along Forbes Avenue in the mid-1980s. It was five years later when Gibson started penning his iconic signs.
“One of the early ones that was a combination of humour and promotion was: PRINTING IS A CONTACT SPORT,” he says. “I thought this is a little more special than ‘Stationery special for 99 bucks.’”
It evolved from there. Gibson got a kick out of coming up with the fun, irreverent signs every month – and when positive feedback from the community started, he knew he had to keep going with it.
“It kind of became a thing,” he says. “If I had known it was going to become a thing, I probably should have documented it a little more.”
But what does exist of Gibson’s sign work on social media, and from his own memory bank, is surely good stuff, the kind of chestnut that offers a passing motorist much-needed respite during their restless commute home.
There’s the classic WE’RE PRINTING A BOOK ON ANTI-GRAVITY, IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO PUT DOWN sign, as well as the cheeky AUTO CORRECT HAS BECOME MY WORST ENEMA one.
A few years ago the sign read: ONE DAY CANADA WILL TAKE OVER THE WORLD THEN YOU’LL ALL BE SORRY. Gibson says he heard about that one a lot.
“That one got a lot of reaction and I really got a kick out of reading the comments – you know what comments on Facebook are like,” says Gibson. “Of course, it’s put up just as a lark, but some people take it very seriously.”
And in between other classics – such as WENT TO BUY CAMOUFLAGE GEAR … COULDN’T FIND ANY and THIEF STEALS CALENDAR, GETS TWELVE MONTHS – is one of Gibson’s favourites.
“I think the one that probably got the most play in social media was: I WAS ADDICTED TO THE HOKEY POKEY BUT I TURNED MYSELF AROUND,” he says. “That got shared by Snoop Dogg.”
Like essentially every business during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Contact Printing has been forced to contend with our new economic reality.
“We’re like everyone else – we went from 100 miles an hour to crawling along,” he says.
But, naturally, the pandemic hasn’t dampened Gibson’s spirits yet. In the era of physical distancing, the sign outside Contact Printing was recently changed to: NOW WE ARE: NO CONTACT PRINTING.
Over the years, Gibson says it’s at times been challenging to come up with the material and enthusiasm to keep going with the sign project – but he continues on because he always gets a thrill when people’s spirits in the community are buoyed, perhaps just for a passing second, by his signs.
But at least once during the 30 years he’s been doing it, the sign took on a sombre note.
Gibson and his wife Vera’s son was killed in a head-on collision, alongside his girlfriend, while driving in the South Okanagan on March 7, 2011.
Michael Gibson had been working at his father’s printing business for the past year when the fatal incident occurred.
“He was going to be my exit strategy, I think,” quips Gibson. “He was getting a kick out of it, and he had a great sense of humour as well. He had started taking over the sign program in those days.”
As the lifelong North Vancouver family mourned the passing of their son, Gibson and his wife couldn’t help but notice the tragically prophetic message that Michael had scrawled on the Contact Printing sign mere weeks before his accident.
“He put the sign up totally upside down and it said, ‘If you can read this, you’ve had an accident.’ It wasn’t that long after the fact that that was his fate,” offers Gibson.
After Michael’s passing, his father responded with his own message. It was likely the first time in years the sign outside Contact Printing had been devoid of any humour.
It read: GOODBYE MICHAEL, YOU WILL BE FOREVER MISSED.
CONTACT HIGH CONTINUES
In the years following the tragedy, Gibson has looked at the iconic sign in a new light.
Noting that prior to his son’s passing he was too much of a glass half-empty kind of guy, he’s been living more for the moment, loving each and every day, and seeing the humour in things even more than before.
When he has a moment to spare, he still gets a kick out of coming up with new ideas for Contact Printing’s fan-favourite sign.
“I’m really glad that people like it. We’re all too serious,” he says. “I really appreciate the reactions we get.”
He tells the tale of a woman named Karen who, after driving by the sign one day some years ago, decided unannounced to pop into Contact Printing and thank the creator of the charming sign for making her day.
Feeling particularly appreciative of Karen’s comments, Gibson had an idea. Just as she was leaving he ran down to the sign and quickly changed it to something more situation appropriate: THANKS FOR KAREN ABOUT OUR SIGN.
“It was corny,” admits Gibson. “But I really hope she drove by and saw it.”