Book Exchange's decorative mural must go

By John Darling

For the Tidings

A small downtown mural outside the Ashland Book Exchange depicting a sapling, birdhouse, frog, bees and birds will be painted over because it violates the city's sign ordinance.

The painting by the front door of the bookstore at 90 Pioneer St. is considered a sign unless the owner goes before the Public Arts Commission to get the graphic declared public art, said City Administrator Dave Kanner. The Book Exchange already has two signs on its new awning, its limit under city ordinance.

The city became aware of the sign code violation when Book Exchange owner Roy Laird applied for a permit to erect the new awning. The city told him he couldn’t put up the awning until he’d painted over the mural. He applied for an extension so he could start promoting his business and was allowed to put up the awning, with 30 days to lose the mural.

“It’s a shame,” said Laird. “It’s a nice little mural.”

Laird was invited to go before the Public Arts Commission Aug. 15 to ask the mural to be deemed public art. If he were successful, the building's owner would be donating it to the city’s public art collection and would enter into an agreement that the city has control over what happens to the mural, said Kanner.

Laird is upgrading the shop, which he bought in May, and said he hasn’t the time nor energy to engage in what might be a lengthy appeal process. He’s going to paint the mural over by Friday.

“I think the sign ordinance works very well,” said Sandy Friend of the Public Arts Commission. “The city offered him the opportunity to keep it and he declined. The ball is in his court. The process provides for a good conversation about the matter. We are very open to talk to him about it.”

Laird said communications with the city have been cordial, “but I don’t have time to run a business and do an appeal.”

Laird was given the choice of waiting on the awning and keeping the mural intact until after the public art issue was resolved, he said. However, he needed to spur his new business in the short term and “not entangle the building owner into an easement where he gives up part of his building.”

A downtown fixture, the Book Exchange goes back through three owners to 1971, when it was Edna’s Book Exchange, situated next to the present Standing Stone on Oak Street. The city recently required the removal of a neon sign from inside the bookstore, as well as a 4-by-8-foot sign on the front.

Laird’s customers have been irate and offered to go through an appeals process, but Friend said it would have to be done by the person with a stake in it (Laird).

One longtime customer, Janet Boggia, noted the mural is “a gentle, innocuous, attractive, unobtrusive piece of art or decorative piece. ... It’s beautiful on that ugly street. This abusive (city) business is incredible ... this goes against common sense.”

“It would be a travesty and a shame if this bit of whimsy were to be replaced by a boring blank surface,” she wrote in an email. “Who among you would be willing to take a bucket of paint and a brush and obliterate it, saying, ‘I’ve just done a good thing’? I would count that as vandalism.”

Pointing to the doomed mural, Laird said, “It appears anything like this can be called advertising.”

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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