Spokane Journal of Business

Shop illuminates sleepy Madison


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A warm glow emanates from a storefront nestled among run-down structures on a sleepy block of south Madison Street downtown.

Through the picture windows, light radiates from antiquated lamps and 1930s ceiling fixtures on display in the showroom of the 13-year-old business called Luminaria. There, workers transform oldand oftentimes brokenlight fixtures into functioning works of retro art.

Unlike its quiet location, Luminaria bustles. On any given day, customers walk through the showroom to pick up lamps theyve had refinished or stop by to have the shops salespeople help them find just the right lamp shades. On the second floor, Luminarias production crews scurry about, restoring, repairing, and building custom lamps and fixtures.

Geoff Loftin, Luminarias owner, says most of the shops customers hear about the business from others who have been there.

This isnt the kind of place that people stop at because theyre driving around the area and think theyd like to drop in, Loftin says. Its more of a destination shop.

In addition to local customers, the store has patrons who live in Boise, Idaho, and in various places in Montana, who stop by the store whenever theyre in town, Loftin says. He claims that some customers even make special trips, such as one Canadian couple who recently flew their private aircraft to Spokane just to stop by the shop.

Although Luminaria seldom advertises, last November the store placed one small, black-and-white ad in a national building magazine. As a result, it received calls from potential clients in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and also landed a lighting job for an upcoming Walt Disney movie, starring Robin Williams, thats to be released this Christmas, says Rebecca Mack, Luminarias marketing director.

Luminaria already has built more than 90 custom light fixtures and lamps to be used on the movies set. The movie, which is to be called the Bicentennial Man, currently is being filmed in San Francisco, Mack says.

Despite the shops popularity, Loftin says Luminaria isnt interested in opening a second retail location. Instead, an Internet site is in the works, as is a traditional catalog, he says. Luminaria nearly has completed development of an on-line catalog that will be accessible on the World Wide Web soon, and Loftin hopes to mail a hard-copy version to customers by the end of the year.

He says hes not ready to try e-commerce, in which customers buy products over the Internet. Instead, Internet users who find lamps on Luminarias site that they want will call a toll-free number that will ring into Luminarias shop here. If calls from the web site and traditional catalog are of sufficient volume, he will convert a portion of the shops second floor currently used as retail space into a small call-center operation.

This is our big push right now, Loftin says. Weve really started looking at planning for the long-term instead of just responding to the moment.

Electrician to shop owner

Loftin cant remember the exact moment when the proverbial light bulb clicked on above his head and prompted him to open Luminaria.

He suspects, however, that it came while he was working in Spokane as an apprentice electrician during the early 1980s. He and his fellow co-workers, he recalls, would pull light fixtures out of old buildings they were rewiring and throw them away. Loftin liked the fixtures and asked if he could keep them.

He began to accumulate the fixtures in the basement of his home, and on occasion he would fix some of them and give them away as gifts, until a friend offered to buy one from him. In 1986, he rented a small portion of the building that Luminaria still occupies and began selling his lamps and fixtures for a living. In 1991, Loftin bought the building on Madison from his landlord.

Last month, a fabric store called La Maison Fabrics Inc. that had been leasing the south end of Luminarias building moved out, allowing Luminaria to occupy the entire 10,000-square-foot building.

Loftin declines to disclose Luminarias annual sales, but says that they have increased between 15 percent and 20 percent each year. The shops work force also has grown steadily over the past 13 years, from just one employee to 14.

About five of those 14 people are part of Luminarias production crew, which assembles, cleans, rewires, and sometimes hand paints lamps and fixtures that either are bought by Loftin or brought in by a customer. The crew also builds lamps and fixtures from antique lighting parts that have accumulated around the store. Luminarias table lamps start at around $60, while ceiling light fixtures can climb to more than $10,000, Loftin says.

Lighting teapots, trumpets

Andrew Bohl, a member of Lumin-arias production crew, says that he has turned customers old kerosene lanterns, trumpets, teapots, and even a hollowed out missile into working lamps. Usually, though, the various pieces that are used to create custom-made lamps and fixtures are acquired either during buying trips to Atlanta, New York, or Salt Lake City, or from what Loftin calls pickers. Pickers are people who scavenge garage sales, flea markets, and estate sales for antique lamps and light fixtures, which they then sell to Luminaria.

A vault on the south end of Luminarias showroom is filled with antique glass lamp shades that Loftin has acquired, and the shops basement had been stacked to the ceiling with lighting components ranging from light bulb sockets to ornate lamp stands.

For the past 18 months, Luminarias production staff has spent an hour each morning sorting through the pile of lamp and fixture pieces and placing each part into an appropriate metal basket hung from a basement wall. Loftin says that after another month or two, the one-time mess should be organized.

Loftin knows the story behind some of the merchandise in his store, such as a light fixture that was pulled out of the Fox Theater here. But most often, since merchandise is bought from dealers and pickers, its difficult to trace the history of a fixture.

By the time we get it, the trail is already cold. The person we buy from usually isnt the same person who took it out of the house or building, Loftin says.

  • Lisa Harrell

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