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Turning letters into treasures

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By Tessa Williams

“Serendipity,” reads an assemblage of vintage letters affixed to a wall at Timeless Treasures, Joan O’Connor’s antiques store on Sutter Street near Pierce. “Bananas,” reads another. “Slow down,” a third.

An establishment that celebrates the relationship between words and objects, Timeless Treasures specializes in vintage letters, available in a vast range of sizes, types and materials. In addition to offering the groupings for sale, O’Connor prompts customers to create their own combinations that become personal works of art.

“Words are just so powerful,” she says. “They can make us feel anything. And the color and variety of materials and sizes we put in the words adds an extra dimension.”

After a career in communications, O’Connor opened her store at 2176 Sutter Street in 1999, focusing at first on distinctive antiques she ferreted out in flea markets, auction houses and antique malls throughout Europe and the United States.

O’Connor, who honed an antique-seeking technique comprised of equal parts patience, dedication and ingenuity, says, “You really just pay attention to what it is that makes you say, ‘Wow, that is so cool.’” Sometimes that calls for guerilla tactics, as in the time O’Connor arrived so early at Bermondsey Market in London that it was still dark outside. She had to shop by flashlight, but managed to leave with a perfect blue and white serving platter she still uses.

Her foray into collecting vintage letters began a decade ago with the closing of a nearby movie theater. After learning that the Regency Theater on Van Ness was slated to close, O’Connor’s first concern was the fate of the big red plastic letters used on the marquee. After placing a few phone calls, she was told the letters were hers to rescue. She brought them to her Sutter Street shop, where they quickly became popular items — some letters of the alphabet more in demand than others.

“I was selling out of B, K, M and W,” O’Connor said. “I knew if I was going to encourage people to spell out a word or phrase, I would have to have options.” So she began specifically searching for vintage sign letters, alerting antiques dealers and flea market vendors of her interest. She found that many antique letters of high quality and interesting design were often at risk of being thrown out by businesses that didn’t value them.

In bringing vintage sign letters into her store, O’Connor found a way to pair her love of language and antique objects. Working with letters also helped O’Connor realize an artistic aptitude she didn’t know she had — one that had gone unappreciated in the art classes she took growing up.

“I wasn’t especially dexterous, but it doesn’t mean I’m not creative,” she says. “When I hit a combination like that — between the word I created and the materials and the colors — it made me feel like I created something.”

In addition to the vintage sign letters, Timeless Treasures sells furniture, home decorations, greeting cards, candles and jewelry, plus a number of other word-related gifts such as vintage rubber stamps, flashcards and postcards.

The most distinctive draw remains the letters, however — a specialty offering that brings in customers from throughout San Francisco, as well as more far-flung locations. There was the British couple who bought a giant letter “A” they hauled back to London in their carry-on luggage, and the woman searching for a rustic letter combination to spell “cucina” in her kitchen in Georgia. There was the Australian woman who found letters to hang the words “cozy up” in her living room. One San Francisco customer searched for just the right letters to spell her daughter’s name, Diana, in the girl’s bedroom to surprise her when she returned from summer camp. And the Hayes Valley restaurant Bar Jules boasts a unique sign made from Timeless Treasures letters.

Those who search far and wide for just the right letter to make just the right word usually have interesting reasons. Five years ago, O’Connor began a blog to record the stories behind her customers’ creations and to provide an online community for those intrigued by the possibilities of communicating words through objects.

“People are amazingly creative and spontaneous and take tremendous joy in creating something personal — in creating what is in fact a piece of art,” she says. “They arrange a group of letters to spell a word and it takes on new meaning.”