A sign in Odenton tells the world how you feel

December 14, 2005|By JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS | JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS,SUN REPORTER

For years the sign outside Odenton Florist had a simple, rarely changing message: A dozen roses, $15; a dozen carnations, $5.98.

Now it changes nearly every day, and flowers rarely have anything to do with it.

WENDY LOVE 4EVR MINUS A DAY.

CONGRATULATIONS JESSIE ITS A GIRL GOD BLESS.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY POOH BEAR LOVE SNUGGLES.

In the 10 months or so since someone asked whether he could rent the sign to say something sweet to his girlfriend, this illuminated landmark on Route 175 in western Anne Arundel County has been transformed into the community message board - the spot where people broadcast all sorts of wonderfully sappy sentiments to their loved ones, not to mention the 23,000 drivers who pass by daily.

There's even the occasional drama.

Last month, for instance - SABRINA I AM SORRY AND A BUCKETHEAD LOVE DANIEL. Frequent sign-watchers received a possible clue about how, precisely, he was a buckethead when the next message appeared: SABRINA HAPPY BIRTHDAY AND ANNIVERSARY LOVE DANIEL.

"I read it every day - every single day," said Sheila Tyler, who owns Black Rooster Espresso & Tea in Odenton.

"I look forward to it," said Sandra Hutchins, a crossing guard for an elementary school two miles away. "I think it's great, I really do."

Two marriage proposals have gone up on the sign; several people called the shop to ask, "Did she say yes?" (She did - both of them.) On the days when there's no message to impart but an ad, folks grumble.

"They like to see the mushy stuff," said Sadie Dawson, whose family opened the store 27 years ago. Bob Kinsey, the store owner and her father, admits to preferring the mushy stuff, too.

Graffiti aside, the average person has few opportunities to put a message in a well-traveled public place. Many businesses don't own such signs. The few that do are unwilling to sacrifice the ad space to someone else.

You could lease a highway billboard, though the cheapest price would be about $1,000, according to Clear Channel Outdoor, a large outdoor-advertising company. You could pay New York-based Skytypers $1,850 to write your message 10,000 feet up, eight miles long, next time the company is flying over Baltimore. You could stick plastic cups into the chain-link fence of an overpass to make letters, as some enterprising souls have done - but that's illegal.

Most people will never do any of that. But several hundred have paid $20 to use the florist's sign for a day or $50 for Friday afternoon through Monday afternoon.

Kinsey decided to offer the sign on a regular basis after he received the request last winter. He put up a "rent this sign" message.

The response was immediate.

Shop workers who used to change the sign with a ladder quickly realized they'd better buy an extension pole if they didn't want to be climbing rungs every day.

They started off renting just one side; they added the other several months ago because they were tired of turning people away.

They keep two calendars simply to track sign usage - one for each side, with marks through the days that are taken. Both are full of X's. The one facing the Fort Meade direction is especially popular.

"When you come over the hill, it's just at the right place," Kinsey said. "It stares you in the face."

He thinks the location has everything to do with the sign's success. He has tried sign-renting at his other shop in Millersville on Veterans Highway, and that one hasn't had nearly the volume of requests.

Robin Burney sees the Odenton sign twice a day because she lives in Severn to the east and works at Fort Meade to the west, and "with everything going on in our world," it makes her happy to see the small declarations of love and affection. It's a vicarious thrill, too: "If it was me, I would feel great to see something like that," she said.

So this month, she decided to rent it for someone else. MOM HAPPY BIRTHDAY I LOVE YOU ROBIN, her message read. Mary Spivey, who turned 68 on Dec. 5, was shuttled off to the florist that evening on false pretenses.

"Robin!" she hollered, astonished. "Do you see that sign?"

"Tears came into her eyes," Burney recalled. She pulled out a camera and took pictures of her mother in front of her message.

"Oh, I was so happy, I was in shock," Spivey said afterward. "I called my mom and my sisters in New Jersey and in Washington to let them know. ... It was the best birthday."

Russell Hammonds, who turned 43 last Saturday, had a good birthday, too. Girlfriend Pam Zebrun of Piney Orchard rented the sign Friday - the weekend was taken - and told him to be sure to get home from work before 5 p.m. to see his gift.

"I had to pull in and show her my appreciation," said Hammonds, who left the shop with candy and roses for the messenger.

Don Pingston, 36, didn't notice the sign at all until his girlfriend pointed it out. It's close to her house, "and she's always commenting on it - `How nice, how sweet,' you know?" he said.

He has been feigning a lack of interest because - shhhh - he's putting up a message for her next week as a surprise (MERRY CHRISTMAS JUNE I LOVE YOU DON).

He couldn't believe how booked the sign was.

"Now I look at it every day," said Pingston, who lives in College Park and works at Fort Meade.

All this means that Odenton Florist doesn't get its sign to itself very much anymore. But the messages that do appear are advertising of a different sort.

"It just makes people notice we're here," Dawson said.

jamie.smith.hopkins@baltsun.com

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