The Bottom Lines : The Future Is Growing Dimmer for Pasadena's Lamp Sales Division

Times Staff Writer

In its inexorable march toward oblivion, the Lamp Sales and Small Appliance Repair division of the City of Pasadena has been removed from the basement of City Hall and targeted for removal from the city budget.

The move to tiny quarters behind a fire station last February marked the beginning of an ignominious end to the one-time pride of the Department of Water and Power. In better times the shop served up to 100 customers a day who came to the spacious rooms in the City Hall basement to buy discount-priced light bulbs or who called to make arrangements for appliance repairs.

Now, on a good day, perhaps 25 determined customers manage to find the shop, located in an unmarked alley and identified only by a small hand-lettered sign. Inside, the shop is only one-third its former size, and only small appliances are repaired on the premises.

Like a lot of other places, Lamp Sales and Small Appliance Repair is the victim of cost-effectiveness studies, computers, competition and parking problems.

None of those problems existed in the 1920s, when Pasadena established its own electric power service. To encourage its growth, and to help lure customers away from competing power companies, the sales and repair shop was created as a convenience for residents.

It thrived for several decades, according to Karl Johnson, general manager of the Department of Water and Power and a 30-year employee.

"With the overall problem of traffic and space around City Hall, it became difficult for people to come in and use this service," he said. "Another argument (against maintaining the service) is that it is competing with the private sector. We don't advertise because of that, so a lot of people don't even know about us."

Earlier this year the city's new computer system displaced the shop in the basement of City Hall. By then, the Board of City Directors had already questioned the point of the shop, whose clientele was steadily declining.

So the shop was moved to empty rooms behind the fire station on Marengo Avenue, between Holly and Walnut streets. To find it, one first must know it's there, then travel an extension of Arroyo Parkway that appears to be a special service road past police headquarters, then follow small signs that point to parking spaces for "Lamp Sales/Repair."

"Most customers finally get desperate and give up," said Barbara Fenske, who has been working in the shop for 33 of her 61 years. "Once they find us they keep coming, but we've lost a lot of them."

America Correa and Johnny Van Winkle, who have both worked in the shop for eight years, agree with Fenske that those who show up are usually long-time customers or people who "come for the rarities," meaning special light bulbs that can't be found at most stores.

The small shop still carries more than 100 kinds of bulbs. Lamps are not sold there (the Lamp Sales name stems from the old-fashioned term for light bulbs) and the repair of large electric appliances was discontinued a year and a half ago.

"We're the only city on the West Coast that does this service," said Fenske.

Johnson said that despite the shop's declining business, it still brings in enough money to cover employee salaries. The workers will move to other departments when the time comes, he said.

Even though the service pays for itself, Johnson said, "It's still a philosophical case of getting out of something that could be done by the private sector."

Michael Yelton, budget administrator, said that although the shop remains in the city's budget proposal for the coming year, the Board of City Directors has recommended that plans be made to close it.

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