RIDGEFIELD — In 1988, Roger Schurman sold his first neon sign to a used-car dealer on Portland’s Lombard Street at the tail end of a day full of rejection.
That first sign — it said “OPEN” — was only the beginning for Schurman and Gas ‘n Glass.
Schurman’s hand-crafted neon signs accompanied Papa Murphy’s as it expanded across the nation. They helped promote the local microbrewery culture in the early ’90s for Pyramid, Bridgeport and McMenamins. And they’re still being made for The Barbers, Sizzle Pie and Fort George Brewery.
But now, Schurman, 68, is looking to sell his business and retire. He is seeking a dedicated buyer who wants to learn the craft. He’s promised to help the buyer move all his equipment to a location of the owner’s choosing. It’s listed for $65,000.
A faint odor of propane hangs in the air of Schurman’s Ridgefield shop, situated in a house along a country road near Green Lake, at 18109 N.W. Krieger Road.
Standing in the shop over a ribbon burner, Schurman’s sole employee, David Spencer, 63, heats a clear glass tube over a hissing blue flame and places it on a work table, bending it to match a paper template atop a white mat scorched with brown burn marks.
Spencer, who commutes from Portland, said he’s hoping the buyer will move the place somewhere local so he can continue working and teach them the craft and science of neon.
“If there’s work,” Spencer said, “I’ll do it.”
The two are more like business partners than employer and employee, but Spencer makes all of the neon signs. He bends the glass and “bombards” the glass tubes with neon and argon gas. It’s a complex process with tubes, tanks, mercury and a faint flicker as voltage runs through the gas in the glass.
Turning on the signs
Schurman was born in Woodland in 1951, when it was a town of about 1,500 people. Growing up, he always wanted to own a business, but he didn’t know what it would be.
He made a list of businesses that interested him, which included sign-making and the restaurant industry, but he narrowed it down to signs. He had been involved in the Theater Historical Society and liked the decor and lights that accompanied it.
“I always liked the old movie palaces,” he said. “I always liked the marquees.”
So he decided to open a neon-sign business without knowing how it worked.
He enlisted in a weekslong school in Portland.
“Portland had one of the few neon schools in the country,” Shurman said. “That’s how I met Dave. We went to school at the same time.”
After completing the course, Schurman opened his Ridgefield Gas ‘n Glass and got to work. Gas ‘n Glass was the first exclusive neon sign company in Clark County, said Schurman. But the first years were difficult.
“I tried to get into several shops in Portland,” he said. “They wouldn’t even open the door. No one wanted to talk to me. All they’d tell me is there’s no way you could make a living off of neon. Well, they’re trying to discourage me.”
Since Gas ‘n Glass opened, Clark County has seen five other neon-exclusive shops come and go. Today, his is again the lone sign shop making neon.
Spencer, who had opened a neon business in Eugene, Ore., came to work for Schurman a few years after Gas ‘n Glass opened.
In the early years of his business, Schurman reached out to Pyramid, Bridgeport and McMenamins brewing companies and secured all three as clients.
“I was the one to figure out there was a market for craft breweries,” Schurman said. “That’s when there was only a handful. If you’ve ever been to McMenamins, you’ve seen our glass. I’ve been doing the brothers’ neon since 1992.”
That includes the neon for the Crystal Ballroom — but only the indoor neon; Schurman’s business isn’t licensed to make outdoor neon signs.
McMenamins ordered so many signs in a faint blue color that Schurman calls the color “McMenamins Blue.”
“It looks old fashioned,” he said.
In 1998, Schurman gained Papa Murphy’s as a client after cold calling its workers; it remained one of his largest clients as the take-and-bake pizza chain spread across the country.
“I figured out that they were in Vancouver and gave them a call,” he said. “They just happened to be looking for somebody.”
About five years later, though, Papa Murphy’s dropped Gas ‘n Glass after deciding not to have any signs in its shops.
Gas ‘n Glass makes custom neon and argon signs and sells pre-made signs, including the ubiquitous “OPEN” sign, at prices starting around $140. Larger custom signs cost up to multiple thousands of dollars, Schurman said. That includes a complex blue sign made for The Sparrow Salon in Portland that took days to make.
“I guess we’re still doing something right,” he said. “I’m getting a lot of Portland’s work over here.”
Turning off the signs
Schurman said he has a couple of interested buyers lined up, but he’s being picky about who takes over his legacy.
“Someone needs to take it to another level,” he said. “Someone could spend a year knocking on doors of breweries and pet stores.”
His decision to sell the business is partly because it’s “getting in the way of my yard work,” he said jokingly. But Schurman is doing the work of mounting the glass to its plastic housing, and he’s seeking other ways to spend his time.
About four years ago, an employee of Schurman’s who assembled the tubes to their housing was struck by a car near work, he said.
“They whacked her and hit her at full blast,” he said.
Schurman waited a year for her to return to work, but she never made a full recovery. She had trouble standing and twisting, he said.
“That’s when I started thinking, ‘Maybe it’s time to sell,’ ” he said.
It’s taken until now for Schurman to list the business for sale online. He prefers not to share the company’s annual revenue, unless a prospective buyer signs a nondisclosure agreement, he said.
“It’s a tough business to sell,” he said. “It’s an unusual business. If someone wanted to learn how to bend glass, (that) would be ideal. Dave would be a great teacher for someone who wants to learn.”
Most of the completed-sign inventory is not included in the sale, but all the equipment to make the signs is, he said.
Schurman said LED signs are taking some business away, but the look and the feel of neon still appeals to business owners. The signs, which cost less than a quarter a day in electricity, still draw people in the same way they used to, he said, especially owners looking for custom signs.
He could liquidate his business, but he wants to see it continue after him, even if that means selling it for cheap.
He also applies that mentality to other business owners who own his signs; Sometimes Schurman will see them turn off their neon at night to save the few cents for electricity.
“Why shut it off?” he said. “I constantly have that argument with people.”
“Leave it on.”