Saturday, April 28, 2001

Old-time lamps and music go together

Couple made businesses out of respective interests

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

        Paxton and Cathy Mendelssohn are archetypal entrepreneurs who followed their passions into business. And in the 18 months since they brought their ventures into Olde Springboro Village, they've made those passions pay.

        Mr. Mendelssohn opened the Magic Lamp in a Victorian-era shop Nov. 1, 1999, because his antique lamp business needed more space and visibility than his Franklin home permitted.

        Why lamps?

[photo] Paxton Mendelssohn specializes in historic and antique lamps and repairs.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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        “I've lived around antiques all my life,” said Mr. Mendelssohn. “I grew up in Connecticut where antiques were prevalent, and learned an appreciation for them at an early age. But you can't do everything well, so you need to pick something you like. I've always liked lamps because they're unique and attractive.”

        After graduating from college and serving in Vietnam, the entrepreneur worked in parks and recreation and as a computer operator. He dabbled in antiques on the side.

        When Mr. Mendelssohn decided to get serious about his avocation, he asked himself, “What do I love the most and know the best?

        “Lamps came up the winner,” he said.

        A lighting-fixtures encyclopedia on two legs, Mr. Mendelssohn can spin the history of the lamp industry in the United States. Tracing styles and materials from the height of the kerosene age, when 6,000 American companies manufactured lamps, the dealer explained that many art forms found their way into lamp making.

        “Rookwood was a pottery studio, but they also made lamp bases. Louis Comfort Tiffany went into jewelry, but evolved into lamps,” he explained.

    In early March, Paxton Mendelssohn opened the Decker House Antique Gallery at 305 S. Main St. in Springboro. Its inventory of general antiques blends well with the building, which dates from 1830 and was inhabited by a man who operated a livery service that linked Springboro, Dayton, Waynesville and Franklin. The property belonged to his wife, Harriet Decker.
    In May, the fourth Mendelssohn venture will open in the enclosed garden space behind Decker House. Garden Gargoyles will feature garden sculptures and one-of-a-kind plantings.
    The Magic Lamp, at 200 S. Main Street, can be reached at 748-8777. Telephone for the Decker House Antique Gallery is 748-8188. Family Tree Music and Garden Gargoyles are at 794-8778.
        Like many other industries, lamp making waned. First, electricity necessitated fewer lamps. Large companies bought smaller companies. Craftsmanship was replaced by mass production. Imports began to replace American products.

        Mr. Mendelssohn researches prolifically to stay on top of the field.

        “You have to know this stuff so that when you go out and look at lamps you know whether one's an original or a fake,” he said. “There are a lot of fakes on the Internet and in stores. I'm real careful of what I buy.”

        He stocks replacement shades and can get hard-to-find items such as painted shades for ball-shaped parlor lamps. He also repairs lamps and shades.

        To publicize his niche business, Mr. Mendelssohn has used a combination of mass-market and specialty advertising. He has run ads in local papers in Warren and Montgomery counties and on the Home and Garden channel in Dayton. To attract lamp fanciers from farther afield he has placed ads in national trade publications such as Antique Week.

        As the Magic Lamp burgeoned, so did its companion business run by Mrs. Mendelssohn. She started Family Tree Music in a small room just off the lamp showroom.

        Family Tree grew from Mrs. Mendelssohn's newfound interest in traditional music and, specifically, in dulcimers. In the last couple of years she had joined a dulcimer society and learned to play - only to find out that the Dayton area's dulcimer dealer was closing up.

        With the encouragement of fellow enthusiasts, Mrs. Mendelssohn opened her tiny shop and gradually began adding instruments. To dulcimers she added banjos and guitars. She and other musicians offered lessons. As public interest developed, she started stocking tin whistles and drums used in traditional music.

        “I sell pretty much what the big music stores don't, and choose my stock primarily in response to what people say they can't get elsewhere,” said Mrs. Mendelssohn.

        She estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 people in the Dayton area play dulcimers. Add to that folks who are interested in other traditional instruments, and there's a sizeable market for her merchandise.

        “School systems are putting more emphasis on music these days,” she added. “And home schoolers are finding things they like to play outside traditional band instruments. We also tap into cultural diversity with African hand drums, South American and Celtic instruments.”

        When her husband made plans to open an antiques shop down the street, Mrs. Mendelssohn moved her shop to the renovated barn behind it. The new location gives her room to display her wares and for lessons and group music-making.

        And, perhaps because her business is so specialized, it appears to be recession-proof.

        “Her sales were a little better in January and February of 2001 than they were the previous year,” said Mr. Mendelssohn. “March was about the same.”

        The economic downturn has had an effect on the Magic Lamp, however.

        Said Mr. Mendelssohn: “Last year, 60 percent of my business was sales. Now repairs make up 60 percent. I'm selling way more parts and service. People are making their old lamps do.”


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