If you've ever spent your time gazing at some of the old commercial buildings in Minneapolis or St. Paul, you may have noticed a message calling at you from the past.

There on the side of a building is the faded remnant of an advertisement painted directly on the bricks, a faint voice from long ago urging you to drink a brand of pop or a beer that no longer exists, or to patronize a hardware store or grocery that has long gone out of business.

Popular and ubiquitous from the second half of the 19th century until the first half of the 20th, many of these old billboard-sized ads are being erased by time and weather, the wrecking ball and new construction.

But thanks to photographer and history buff Jay Grammond, the "ghost ads" of the Twin Cities are being preserved in a new book.

"Fading Ads of the Twin Cities" is the product of a midlife career change by Grammond, who was looking for a pandemic project.

Grammond, 55, had worked for nearly 20 years in community education and had been the adult enrichment coordinator for the Elk River school district. In 2019 he decided to turn his longtime hobby and side business as a photographer into a full-time profession.

COVID-19 derailed his plans to sell landscape images to hospitals and senior living facilities, but he discovered a new opportunity when he was looking for books about his interest in ghost ads.

He came across a series of picture books about ghost ads published by the History Press in Charleston, S.C., each one devoted to a different city: "Fading Ads of Philadelphia," "Fading Ads of Detroit," "Fading Ads of St. Louis." But there were no books about the Twin Cities.

Grammond sent a pitch to the History Press and convinced the publisher that he should be the guy to do one.

By the summer of 2020, he had signed a book deal and started making regular treks from his home near Princeton, Minn., to the warehouse districts and downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul, searching out and photographing old brick buildings where ghost ads could still be seen.

Tracing the city's history

Grammond was helped by a blog, "Ghost Signs of Minneapolis," which featured postings of ghost sign sightings by someone named Adam Miller between 2011 and 2017. There was also a Google map of more than 100 ghost sign locations in the Twin Cities. And suggestions on social media put him on the trail of other ghost signs.

Sometimes while searching for one sign, he would spot another that was unknown to him, hiding in plain sight. Most of his ghost sign hunting in the historic neighborhoods of the Twin Cities occurred during the height of the pandemic.

"There were times when there was hardly anyone else on the streets and many of the storefronts were boarded up," he wrote in the book.

Grammond photographed about 200 ghost signs, 150 of which made it into his book. He writes that the signs are the visual remnants of the types of businesses that were key to the region's commercial growth.

Signs advertising plows and tractors, seed companies and flour, for example, are the result of the state's wheat production.

As the Twin Cities became a jobbing and distribution center and a railroad hub, signs advertising warehouses started to appear.

Grammond's photographs also capture ads touting bygone hotels and hardware stores, beer, bikes, butchers, banks and blacksmith shops, shoes, cars, clothing, appliances, tobacco, film developing and violins. You can also find the writing still on the wall from the Northwestern Casket Company and the Land-O-Nod mattress company in the book.

The ghost ads still visible in the Twin Cities range from horse and buggy era, offering harnesses and wagons, to the early computer age, with a painted wall promoting the now broken-up Control Data Corp.

"For me, they're telling a story of the city's past," Grammond said.

Advertising our collective past

Put up before the arrival of billboard-lined interstate freeways, the messages painted on brick walls, sometimes covering the whole width of a building, were meant to catch the eye of people traveling through the city center on foot or in a carriage or trolley.

Grammond said we can still see them because "brick building signs tend to stand the test of time, weather and things like fire and demolition better than the wooden building signs."

Although their original purpose was strictly commercial, Grammond finds a sort of beauty today in the hand-painted signs that sometimes include a sort of signature by the sign company.

"The signs beckon us to remember a time from our collective past; they basically are an art exhibit showcasing the history of business, industry, lifestyle and ways of life in Minnesota," he writes.

Grammond said he would like to do a follow-up book documenting ghost ads outside of the Twin Cities in smaller, historic towns of the state like Rochester, St. Cloud and Duluth.

Some of the ghost ads Grammond encountered in the Twin Cities were so badly deteriorated or covered with graffiti that they're unreadable. You can see the outline of a sign, but you can't tell what they were advertising.

He included photos of some of those mysterious signs in his book.

"It's worth including some of these to record what can be seen out there and to provide examples for some future researcher or avid fading-ad fan," he wrote.