Retiring Quiel brothers reflect on sign business’ 60 years in San Bernardino
By Brian Whitehead | firstname.lastname@example.org | San Bernardino Sun
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There’s a room on the second floor of Quiel Signs in San Bernardino where brothers Larry, Jerry and Gary Quiel would take prospective clients for a look at their family business.
Through a window overlooking the service and installation yard, corporate decision makers could see in real time how smoothly the intricate and rather complicated process of billboard and sign making went under the Quiels’ watch. Below, designers worked collaboratively with metal professionals and electricians, themselves working closely with the paint and assembly teams.
“The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more,” asserts a sign mounted above the main doorway.
Six decades after their late father opened Quiel Brothers Signs off Base Line Street in San Bernardino, sons Larry, Jerry and Gary will close the beloved family business this year to retire.
“At Christmas and all the holidays,” Jerry said, “it used to tick my mom off because we’d talk about work because it was so interesting. This is the most interesting business because you meet so many people throughout the years.
“We’ve met a lot of good people and we’ve built a lot of signs.”
The Quiel family’s San Bernardino roots run deep, and their fingerprints are all over town.
In the 1940s, patriarch Ray Quiel worked with the company that composed the original McDonald’s signs on North E Street, Larry said. Black-and-white photos Ray took of the McDonald brothers in front of their nascent burger joint remain Quiel family heirlooms for which film studios ask the brothers permission to use.
Ray Quiel and his brother, Gordon, moved their sign business from Base Line, where it opened in 1961, to a lot on South I Street around 1965, enlisting a 16-year-old Larry to help dig the foundation for the sign-making mecca still standing a stone’s throw from the 215 Freeway.
Many a night, Gary recalled, his parents drove the family around a booming San Bernardino to show off their handiwork.
“That’s the most rewarding thing about this business,” Jerry said. “You can see your work and other people can see your work.”
Growing up, the three brothers – all proud San Bernardino High graduates – worked every job there was at the shop before embarking on separate careers as contractors. When Ray bought his brother out of the business in 1988, the prodigal sons returned to see their renowned father into retirement.
In the decades since, the Quiel brothers – Larry, 71, Jerry, 68, and Gary, 62 – have become San Bernardino historians of sort, their vast catalog of projects providing them a rare knowledge of the area.
“Back in the ’70s, all the barricades said San Bernardino was ‘A City on the Move,’” Jerry recalled. “This city was moving. It was fun to be here. There were so many things going on. I remember putting up signs for ‘All-America City,’ a big sign on E Street and one up here by Little Mountain (Drive).
“When you entered the city, a big sign said ‘All-America City.’”
Name a major San Bernardino landmark and chances are the Quiel brothers had a hand in elevating its profile.
At one time or another, the three say, signs for the Harris Building, the Fox, Crest and Ritz theaters, the Central City Mall, the Carousel Mall and the Blockbuster Pavilion San Bernardino (now known as Glen Helen Pavilion) were in their father’s shop.
The brothers crafted San Manuel’s first bingo sign and placards up and down the state for oil giants 76, Mobil, Shell and Chevron.
“Every project was different,” said Jerry, who helped install a Budweiser billboard in Puerto Rico a while back.
“There were no two projects alike.”
More recently, Quiel Signs has raised electronic message boards at no fewer than 60 schools in San Bernardino, not to mention hundreds of others in Northern and Southern California.
“The one thing about this business is you learn something every day,” Jerry said. “There’s something new always coming up – new technology, new ways to do things. It’s just unbelievable. When you think you know it all, you don’t.”
With new state and city regulations limiting much of what sign makers can do these days, Larry, Jerry and Gary found it an opportune time to enjoy the fruits of their labor and retire.
Having agreed long ago to let their children pursue careers outside sign-making, the three entertained offers to buy the business, but said they could not find a suitable taker.
So the Quiels sold the property last summer and have until May to close up shop.
“It’s been a hell of a ride,” Jerry said.
While the brothers still have a few projects to complete on their way out, their operation isn’t what it was in its heyday, when the family employed about 45 people and 400 projects marked a good year.
Larry, a San Bernardino planning commissioner for the better part of two decades, said recently he can tell the age of one of his billboards by the design of the Quiel Signs logo on its side.
“We’ll continue,” Gary said, “to see the fruits of our labor for quite a while.”