Light Bulbs Etc. & Lifestyles has everything homeowners and designers could want, but possibly haven’t even imagined…yet.
“Sometimes a lighting showroom is the worse place to see how a lighting fixture looks,” says Melvyn Kahn, referring to the cluttered appearance of many electrical supply houses and lighting stores. “We’re a design industry,” he notes, adding that the presentation should be aesthetically pleasing.
Kahn, who co-owns the Costa Mesa Light Bulbs Ect. store with his long-time business colleagues Colin Becker and Irwin Watkin, has designed an environment that demonstrates the power of good lighting design by providing beautiful applications that show clients the possibilities. Individual rooms featuring a fully appointed kitchen, a casual dining area, and a conference space – all of which reveal the various layers of light that accommodate different moods and uses – set this showroom apart from the competition.
To showcase portables attractively, Kahn specified handsome cherry wood cabinetry that displays each lamp individually and positioned the “bookcase” of lamps at the front of the store. The same warm wood is carried out in other custom displays throughout the spacious 13,000-sq.-ft. showroom as well as the central customer service counter.
A Continent Away
Growing up in South Africa, Kahn hadn’t yet decided on a career path after earning his business degree when a relative, who was an electrical engineer in Cape Town, said, “You’re a creative person; have you ever thought about lighting?” Although Kahn was skeptical that lighting could be considered an artistic field, he went on a job interview at SA Lighting. “I was hired on the spot, but truthfully, I wasn’t even sure I wanted the job,” he jokes.
Sure enough, Kahn found lighting design to be engrossing. “By nature, I am a creative person but not in the typical way,” he remarks, relating how in a science class in college he had to label his drawing of a bird so that the professor would know what it was. Clearly, drawing was not his forte. “Lighting was a talent I discovered later in life,” Kahn muses. “I always had a good vision for space and whether something was out of balance. I’d look at a space and, in my mind, design it differently. I learned that I have a tremendous propensity for the art of lighting.” To expand his knowledge on the topic, he took a lighting course offered by the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES).
Several years later, Kahn started up a successful lamp factory with Bernard Wolf in Cape Town. The latter also purchased a struggling retail lighting store in South Africa and made it profitable. However, there was a lot of political unrest in the late ’70sand the business partners decided to sell the factory and leave the country.
Coming to America
“I went to the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town and looked up lighting businesses in the Yellow Pages,” Kahn recalls. He then handwrote 500 letters to lighting companies – wholesalers and retailers – all over the country to inquire about job openings. “I received 40 replies from people who were interested,” he says. Kahn then flew to New York and spent the next two months going coast to coast, meeting with potential employers and learning about the lighting industry. “Herb Bailey of Lighting Inc. in Houston sponsored me and I worked for him for one and a half years,” he comments.
At that time, the ceiling fan market was heating up. “I called Bernard in South Africa and told him there was a lot of potential here [to start up a business together]. He called me back and was on a plane the next day and we spent a few days looking for a location.”
With that, Wolf and Kahn formed Lightrays, a Houston showroom that focused on ceiling fans, lighting, and light bulbs. Soon, there were so many people coming in for light bulbs that the partners decided to separate the category into its own store – Light Bulbs Unlimited – down the street.
“If people came into Lightrays looking for bulbs, we’d just send them over there,” Kahn recalls. Eventually he and Wolf franchised that part of the business, which still exists today. Meanwhile Lightrays continued to grow to four stores. When the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986 and oil prices went from $30 a barrel to $10, Kahn said the economy in Houston collapsed and they were forced to close three stores. Kahn sold his stock in the business to Wolf (who still owns and operates Light Bulbs Unlimited in Houston) and headed to the West Coast with his family.
Moving to California
Kahn decided to open up a showroom in Costa Mesa and call it Light Bulbs Unlimited. “I hated the light bulb [part of the] business with a passion, but I loved lighting [design],” he confesses. Since one of the bulb store franchises was located in San Diego, Kahn realized that Southern California customers were becoming confused. Kahn changed the name of his store to Light Bulbs Etc., to convey a broader assortment of categories. More recently, he added “Lifestyles” to further emphasize the design aspect.
Over the years, Kahn has expanded his lighting design knowledge with classes offered by the American Lighting Association (ALA) and organizations such as IES. He and the staff at Light Bulbs Etc. delight in helping clients create their dream homes.
“I genuinely love what I do every minute of the day,” Kahn states. “I always sit down with a client and tell them one thing: I don’t care at the end of the day if you spend $1,000 or $100 on our project. What’s important to me is that I’ve had the opportunity to educate you about lighting and guide you. I want to make sure that when you flip the lights on, you say ‘Wow!’”
In a state rife with home centers, Kahn feels his business is positioned just right. “I love Home Depot. With that type of competition, you have to see what they offer and what they can do, and then [assess] what you do better,” he explains. “Innovation over imitation is the business model we have here.”
And speaking of competition, Kahn wishes industry members would be more open about sharing knowledge for the greater good. “My goal is to raise the [showroom] standard and take it to another level. If we raise the bar on how the whole industry is perceived, it’s better for everyone. There are business people who are in lighting, but I happen to be a lighting person who’s in business.”