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The iconic Okemos ‘shopping cart lady’ perched sign shines again

OKEMOS – They don’t make signs like the one perched above the Playmakers parking lot on West Grand River Avenue anymore.

The 30-foot-tall “Caddy Lady,” there since 1957, glows green when lit. Neon tubes powered by transformers inside the panel give the impression that the woman depicted is walking, the wheels of her cart turning with each step.

Replicating the icon today would be expensive, said Paul Vlahakis, and the finished creation would never exceed modern signage requirements thanks to its size.

Her company, JJV Properties, has looked after the shopping cart lady since she bought the property in the 1980s, just after Schmidt’s food market closed there.

The sign stuck, Vlahakis said, because even then it was clear he was part of the community.

“It’s basically a benchmark,” he said. “He’s been there for so long.”

Now, after six years of obscurity, the lady in the basket has been reignited and almost restored to working order. A fire in the summer of 2015 caused a short circuit in its transformers.

Restoration after a fire

Vlahakis said a bird’s nest started the fire inside the panel in June.

It was too close to the panel transformers, which get hot, he said.

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“The panel just started smoking and smoldering and that caused the neon transformers to short out,” Vlahakis said.

Signs made today are usually lit with LED lighting, he said, but his company struggled to maintain the neon tubes and transformers that have always powered the basket lady sign. .

“It’s very rare that you find used or manufactured neon tubes,” Vlahakis said.

The building at 2299 West Grand River Ave.  in Okemos once housed Schmidt's Food Market.  The company installed the

But he said retrofitting the panel was not a consideration after the fire, so components inside the panel had to be replaced.

The final cost of the work is not yet clear, Vlahakis said, although he expects to spend “thousands of dollars”.

Work did not begin until the wiring under the property’s parking lot had been replaced.

Work on the sign should be finished by the end of the week, he said, although the lights on the sign were turned back on late last week.

Its neon glow has not gone unnoticed.

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A community “celebrity”

That’s because the lady in the basket is something of a local celebrity, said Andy Marsh, director at Playmakers.

She served as the mascot for Schmidt’s Food Market for over two decades.

In the years after the market closed, it dominated other tenants in the building, including Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Old Country Buffet, The Cappuccino Cafe and, since 2002, Playmakers. Current tenants also include Peak Performance Physical Therapy and Lotte Market.

“There are a lot of people who are happy that it’s fixed,” Marsh said.

So much so that when Playmaker’s posted the news on its Facebook page on Friday afternoon with a photo of the lit sign, it garnered over 125 comments and over 200 shares.

“On June 16, 2015, the iconic Shopping Cart Lady caught fire and was out of service,” it read. “We are happy to announce that she is back and lit!”

Marsh said Playmakers staff are as excited and grateful for the repairs as community members.

“She’s been watching West Grand River Avenue for over 60 years,” he said. “It’s incredible.”

Contact Rachel Greco at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @GrecoatLSJ.