Just Bulbs: Still Burning Bright on the Upper East Side


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Just Bulbs is moving its longstanding shop on East 60th Street on the Upper East Side to a larger space a couple of blocks away.

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Alex Wroblewski for The New York Times

Julia Przybos could not finish her puzzle.

“It’s Caravaggio,” said Ms. Przybos, referring to the painting “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist.” What she needed to complete it, she realized, was more light.

“It’s all dark,” she said. “It’s very difficult. Dark green, dark brown and just some red, because it’s a beheading.”

So, as New Yorkers have done for nearly four decades, Ms. Przybos, a French professor, headed to Just Bulbs, a light-bulb shop.

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An employee helps a customer at Just Bulbs, which is like a museum of light-bulb history.

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Alex Wroblewski for The New York Times

The shop was housed for about 10 years in a narrow storefront on East 60th Street. It only appeared small, relying on a warehouse nearby to accommodate its stock, which grew to about 36,000 light bulbs. And now — when many independent specialty shops are challenged just to stay in business — Just Bulbs is moving to bigger digs.

The new shop opens on Wednesday at 222 East 58th Street, just a few blocks away. Inventory was moved over the course of several weeks by shrink-wrapping the shelves and wheeling them down the street on dollies, said David Brooks, 62, the owner.

The main reason for the move to the new space, Mr. Brooks said, was LED technology. For virtually every model of bulb, there is now a more environmentally friendly LED equivalent. So the shop’s offerings have nearly doubled.

The store is like a museum of light-bulb history, with so-called nostalgic bulbs (replicas of old Thomas Edison glass bulbs with looping carbon filaments), halogen globes, long fluorescent tubes, incandescent spirals in all colors and strings of Christmas lights in whimsical shapes, like M&M’s, pink rabbits and pizza slices. And then there are the LED options.

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Jason Sanchez helps move merchandise to the store’s new location.

Credit
Alex Wroblewski for The New York Times

On a recent afternoon, customers crowded the old store.

Along with the French professor, they included a man from Bronxdale who said he had come four times in three days searching for a bulb that looked vintage but was LED, a woman cradling a light fixture in her arms, and a man pinching a burned-out bulb the size of a cherry tomato.

“It’s a light from my oven,” said Daniel Sanchez of East Harlem. “Wish me luck.”

They stood amid boxes stacked floor to ceiling and beneath boughs of string lights. The shop was alternately dimly lit, and, in places where bulbs had been screwed into strips of sockets to show off their powers, blinding.

Employees carried on a meandering conversation as they rang up orders, took calls and shouted out model numbers as long as Social Security numbers, while others zipped around to fetch the bulbs.

Mr. Brooks is a third generation light-bulb purveyor. His grandfather got into the light-bulb business during World War II, peddling them door-to-door at a time when there was a shortage. He later opened a shop in Midtown. In 1980, Mr. Brooks’s mother, Shirley Brooks, and his sister, Judi Brooks, opened Just Bulbs in Chelsea, which was once lampooned by David Letterman in a comedy sketch, along with a shop called Just Shades.

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Lelburn James Sr., foreground, and Antonio Sanchez prepare fragile merchandise for the move.

Credit
Alex Wroblewski for The New York Times

Over the years, patrons did not always welcome changes in the industry, Mr. Brooks said. As LED lighting took off, many New Yorkers clung to the pleasing warmth of incandescents. When a particular soft-pink incandescent bulb went off the market, one regular customer was heartbroken, Mr. Brooks said.

“They used to make old white ladies look very good,” he said. “They would make their complexions look rosy.” The solution? “We painted light bulbs pink,” Mr. Brooks said, “and she would buy hundreds.”

As for Ms. Przybos, she left the shop with her own wish granted: two small bulbs for a table lamp that would illuminate the darkest corners of her Caravaggio puzzle. She will happily follow Just Bulbs to its new location, but she will miss the cramped old place, she said.

“I’m desperately old-fashioned,” she said, “and I like the pandemonium.”

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