It’s impossible to drive along Austin’s funky South First Street without noticing Roadhouse Relics, the South Austin gallery and studio where Todd Sanders crafts his neon artistry.
Those traveling north are treated to the now-iconic painted-postcard “Austin” mural covering an entire side of this former fruit stand, which Sanders rescued from destruction when it was a roofless hulk on a blighted street. Those traveling south see the colorful glow of his creations through the gallery windows, each one a gleaming reminder of the DIY spirit this city so reveres — and the charm we must preserve as encroaching concrete cubes threaten to swallow its character.
Just as Sanders’ vintage-inspired pieces evoke nostalgia and respect for the past, the white-stucco Roadhouse Relics building itself serves the same function. Sanders’ preservation instinct and appreciation for history drove him to purchase the dilapidated property in the first place, saving it from certain demolition. He lived for years in a trailer on the property while restoring the space and turning it into an Austin landmark. For several of those years, he operated a signage business before he began devoting himself full time to his art, which now graces the walls of many other Austin institutions.
But let him tell it:
“When I went to buy the run-down fruit stand that is now Roadhouse Relics, I was offered $15,000 by an Austin investor to walk away from the deal. My friends told me I was crazy not to take the money and run. But I knew creating a space and life for myself in Austin was what I wanted to do.
The roof had caved in. In fact, I am not sure it was even safe to go in. The day I bought it, I moved in to the only room that still had a roof. After a few months, I moved into a trailer out back where I lived for the next 10 years.
Over the past two decades, I’m proud to say that my gallery has become an Austin landmark. If you had told me when I bought it that one day, The New York Times would list it as a must-see place in Austin, I wouldn’t have believed you.
For me, I always knew I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. Roadhouse Relics is an extension of who I am; it’s become the iconic name behind my work. The people who come inside and the collectors who buy my work, they’ve all become part of my story. And the best part is that I have this amazing space, and life and family — and I get to do what I love.”