Brian Allen, owner of The Lamp Repair Shop in South Portland, is surrounded by lamps – some are repair jobs, some are his okwn creations. Allen started the business in 1986, and moved it to Knightville in 2002.
By Ann S. Kim
SOUTH PORTLAND - The Lamp Repair Shop in Knightville is having another banner year.
A dry-erase board in the storefront window proclaims that the shop has completed 1,536 repairs so far this year. Even with a few weeks left in 2012, that tops the previous record of 1,329 that Brian Allen's business set last year. The latest repairs brings the grand total to 34,166 repairs performed since Allen started the business in 1986.
"This business has never wanted for work," Allen said recently.
Allen's can-fix-it attitude is clearly part of the draw. But some of the credit must go to the quirky Ocean Street shop, which houses Allen's enterprise and a spin-off polishing business run by Mike Gutgsell. The boundaries of the two one-man operations aren't clearly visible among the wide-ranging collection of lamps, parts, antiques and "upcycled" items created from bits of this and that fill the crowded space.
It's a place where a customer can pick up a 1896 ceramic socket, have a vase transformed into a table lamp and check out the cribbage board made of reclaimed lumber or the collection of rocket lamps created from old fire extinguishers.
There's also plenty of free advice -- on the skin cancer risks of halogen bulbs, the best baked goods in the area and the worthiness of various home polishing products. Political observations are available as well. (Allen volunteers that socialism informs some of his pricing decisions.) There are also the random surprises, like the fiddleheads Gutgsell brought in -- at least until the city got wind of it.
Strangely enough, a throwaway culture has much to do with the shop's success. As consumers tossed lamps that went haywire, repair shops went out of business and left fewer options for those who preferred to fix rather than replace.
Allen figures that if just 1 percent of the nation's population opts for repair, he'll do just fine.
Some customers are sentimentally attached to their lamps, whether they are antiques, heirlooms or neither. Some just don't have the disposable mindset, willing to pay twice the retail cost of a cheap lamp to get it fixed.
Some customers may simply be of Toby Ingalls' ilk.
"I have kind of a lamp fetish," said Ingalls, a concierge who lives in Portland and stopped by recently to drop off some lamps for repair. "I'm constantly buying lamps I don't need."
Bill Jones, a retired chef from South Portland, was camped out in his usual space with a newspaper. He joked that he is not there every day, just the days the shop is open.
"I come down to watch these guys," he said, sitting in the chair he bought after the other ones that occupied the space had been sold.
Local customers account for about 85 percent of the repair business. Over the past 10 years, work has come from places as far-flung as New York, California and South Korea.
Allen, 50, started repairing lamps after he moved to Portland from northern Vermont in the 1980s. He was working in shipping and receiving at a hardware store that was turning away repair jobs he thought were doable.
He started doing repairs on the side, working in the downstairs hallway of his house. The business, previously called Irving Repair and Metalwork after his street, relocated a couple of times before setting up in Knightville in 2002.
The name change came about because customers could seem to remember the original name.
"The Lamp Repair Shop, who couldn't remember that?" Allen asked.
Behind the counter are work stations for Allen and Gutgsell, who's a quiet foil to Allen's gregariousness. Gutgsell, 57, met Allen when looking for items for his antique business years ago and has been the owner of The Polishing Shop for 12 years.
Drawers are nearly overflowing with supplies. Five-gallon buckets are filled with sockets, plugs and lamp harps. Among the works in progress are a copper coffee percolator, a set of English table lamps that need to be converted for use in the United States and a dragon lamp of unknown origin that Allen estimates is a century old, based on the hardwood.
In front of the counter are lamps -- antiques and creations of Allen's, vintage furniture, kitchenware. His works include a reproduction of a Victorian gaslight and a "mantern" made from a cast-iron wheel and valves.
Lynda Litchfield of Cape Elizabeth came by one morning to pick up a couple of lamps -- a desk model with a severed cord and a table lamp with a finicky switch. As she was getting rung up, she admired a pair of brass candlesticks -- Gutgsell's before-and-after examples of polishing -- and considered items she could bring in to him.
"I love this place," she said.
Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:
Mike Gutgsell owns The Polishing Shop, which adjoins Allen’s lamp-repair shop in South Portland. He’s shown here at his work station, using a polishing machine to restore a brass candlestick. The shops cater to a mostly local clientele, but have attracted customers from New York and California.
Allen also creates lamps from odds and ends, including a table lamp, left, made from an old chandelier.
Mike Gutgsell, who owns The Polishing Shop that adjoins Allen’s business, polishes a brass candlestick.