Matt Driscoll

In a world of Amazon, Tacoma’s old, plucky light bulb store manages to thrive

A columnist for The News Tribune already wrote this column — nearly 20 years ago.

The columnist was Art Popham, and it would be one of his last. Shortly after profiling a plucky, family-owned Tacoma light bulb store — the kind of story about a small, local establishment that was one of his signatures — Popham, who covered business for the TNT, suffered a stroke and passed away at the age of 52.

Inside United Lamp Supply, a framed copy of Popham’s column still hangs on the wall.

The company started in the garage of original owner Don Bray back in 1968 before moving, in 1990, to a former pie factory near Stewart Middle School.

Visit United Lamp Supply, and you get the sense the column has been hanging there for a long time — with purpose. You quickly gather that it serves as cherished proof of the company’s history and evidence of the way the light bulb store has managed to adapt, survive and thrive — despite the sometimes long odds against it — over the years.

In 2002, when the column was published, Popham found a tale worth telling in that resiliency.

United Lamp Supply, Popham shared with readers, had gone from Bray in his van, hand-delivering and stocking light bulbs in mom and pop stores throughout Tacoma to a brick-and-mortar storefront that served everything from the “one-bulbers” to large restaurants, casinos, municipalities, even Emerald Downs.

At the time, what few people — aside from some folks with bad haircuts or black turtlenecks — could have known is the way the internet would soon change everything.

Now, in 2019, that’s why this News Tribune columnist has found a story worth telling in United Lamp Supply.

In many ways, it’s nearly identical. It’s still a story of stubborn longevity, just updated with the last two decades in mind, and particularly the challenges internet retail has posed to small, specialty retailers.

In other ways, it’s different — because the sea change has been so dramatic. Business resiliency is one thing, but the fact that people still regularly walk up the steps and into United Lamp Supply in search of odd, hard-to-find light bulbs can seem hard to fathom, triggering both sincere surprise and warm nostalgia.

Certainly, Ed Bray — Don’s now 62-year-old son, who officially started working for his father in 1975 and now runs the business and employs his own son — had no idea what the future would hold when he started in the light bulb business fresh out of high school.

This year marks United Lamp Supply’s 51st year in business, and while Bray acknowledges that competing with online retailers has been a significant challenge, he foresees many good years ahead.

“We find that people just want information, and they want knowledge, and that’s what we have, and that’s what keeps us alive, is the knowledge,” Bray said this week.

“You’re always going to need plumbers and electricians and people who do service work … And you’re always going to need people who are experts in their field, and that’s what we do. It’s not a phone app,” Bray continued. “As long as we stay on the forefront of everything that is new and new technology, we’ll survive.”

If that comes off as cocky, it shouldn’t. It’s just that the Bray family business has weathered storms before. While others might be surprised to learn what Bray describes as “Tacoma’s oldest lighting company” is still in business, he’s not one of them.

When the big box stores put the mom and pops out of business, United Lamp Supply figured it out, after all, opening a retail counter for customers while shifting the bulk of its business to commercial buyers. Today, while devoted walk-ins make up only about 10 percent of business, those visitors are still treated like family, Bray says. The same goes for the larger, commercial accounts that make up the bulk of United Lamp Supply’s customer base.

It was the first of several transitions for the company over the years.

Like when the lighting business and government regulations started making shifts toward energy efficiency? United Lamp Supply saw it coming and capitalized. The foresight and adaptability helped the company survive the Great Recession, Bray said, and still makes up a sizable chunk of the work.

Closer to home, when Bray’s father died in 2004, and then again when Bray battled throat cancer in 2016, the business rallied and kept on going.

So this internet thing?

No big deal.

“Our customers come back because we provide such great service. We go above and beyond. If they need something, we’ll find it,” said Jordan Bray, who acknowledges he’d like to “keep (the business) going as long as I can.”

“We can find any kind of bulb you can think of,” the younger Bray continued. “We adapt to all the technology that comes out. And, everyone is always going to need bulbs.”

It’s hard to argue with. After all, the proof is in the bottom line.

Including Ed Bray, United Lamp Supply employs six people, and yearly sales, recently, have averaged between $2 and $2.5 million.

And that hard-to-find light bulb?

Chances are, United Lamp Supply has one in its warehouse, just waiting for you.

Sure, there’s talk of adding an online shopping option to the company’s website some day, but it doesn’t sound pressing

“If you want, you can contact us and come by — we’ve got a brick-and-mortar store,” Bray says with the confidence of a man who’s beaten the odds before.

“We’re not just some online company.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.