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Doug Solyan, 72: Owner of Uptown Neon

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Scott Elmquist

"Did you ever study Nikola Tesla in school? This is a Tesla coil. I can go around and I can light up all the pieces in the ceiling and people like yourself say, “I want that one.” I get on my ladder and take it down, find the transformer and sell it to them.

"This is a hobby that turned into a business. When I first started in 1983, I was a mirror restorator. I was the only person in the state of Virginia that resilvered mirrors. And I got into the neon by accident. I had a young man paint me a sign for my mirror business, and when I went over to look at it, he had a piece of ruby-red glass lit up and I said: “Wow. I want to trade you.” He needed a mirror. I had plenty of mirrors, so I traded him. And then about a week later I went back to him and I said, “How about the rest of this neon?” And I traded him a piece of furniture for 40 pieces of neon he’d found in the garbage.

"Everybody said I was crazy, because the furniture was worth 800 bucks. Well, I hung them up in the window about three days later. A man stopped in and said he wanted to buy one. So I started selling them. I bought used glass for $1 apiece and then I would sell it for $50 to $75 depending on what it looked like.

"My mentor, Louis Rudd, he made neon for 75 years starting in the ’30s and ’40s. Well, he took a shining to me and said, “Doug, if you buy the materials I’ll teach you.” Well, that’s like someone offering to teach you the piano. There’s only one way to learn the piano — you’ve got to beat the keys. You’ve got to practice day in and day out. For me, this older man helping me, what he did is he gave me a tremendous amount of encouragement. Because anything you do when you start out is rough, but he never criticized my work. He looked after me. And it turned out, when he later got ill with cancer, my wife and I were able to return the favor and look after him."

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