New Yorker Spotlight: David Brooks, Illuminating the City One Bulb at a Time
A block from Bloomingdales, on 60th right off of Third, is a store that every New Yorker should know about. The store sells 36,000 kinds of one thing, and its name gives it away: Just Bulbs.
Just Bulbs has been taking care of New York’s light bulb needs in one variation or another since 1945. It’s currently owned and run by David Brooks, who began working at the family business back in 1982. Since he hit the register at Just Bulbs over thirty years ago, he has learned as much about bulbs as people. And when it comes to people, they are often buying the wrong bulbs.
Wanting an insider’s look into the world of bulbs, I recently visited Just Bulbs to speak with David. In between questions, he was ringing up customers and answering questions over the phone. For David, today was just another day helping New York keep the lights on.
Growing up, did you find yourself curious about bulbs?
Sure, it was always in the family.
When did you realize bulbs could be a career?
When I gave up my management consulting career out in Saint Louis and moved back to New York to do this.
Do you have any special bulb training?
You only learn by doing. Like everyone else, I assumed there were three types of light bulbs in the world when I first started. I was lost for a little while.
When customers first walk in, what is their response to the store?
Well, they always see it cluttered, but that doesn’t bother them so much. They are usually impressed that we know what we are talking about.
Do some customers just come in curious about the store?
That happens. We’ll see a lot of tourists doing that.
You probably get this question a lot. Why sell just bulbs?
Well, bulbs don’t go out of fashion. They change in technology, but you don’t have to worry about the constant change of styles, colors, and having obsolete inventory.
The store relocated to the Upper East Side from Flatiron ten years ago. What is the biggest difference between the two neighborhoods?
Like everyone else that doesn’t live on the Upper East Side, we thought that it was a stuffy place. Turns out, it’s incredibly friendly, more friendly than I ever imagined. We are happier here than we were before.
On a daily basis, what are some of your customers’ bulb needs?
Well, people always need a bulb for the inside of their oven or the inside of their refrigerator. That’s always the onesie-twosie kind of customer. Then there are always people who want to redo their whole house. The smart ones consult with us before they get the fixtures because the light is actually determined by the light bulb and not the light fixture itself.
We also do a lot of commercial work. We do a lot of office buildings, hotels, and law firms.
The most interesting job we did was the Christmas decorations for The Plaza Hotel when they wanted to make an Eloise display. Everything had to be pink. We searched for pink and made it happen.
Image courtesy of The Plaza Hotel
Can you share any stories about interesting customer requests?
The most interesting thing I think has to do with people who are not willing to change with the new technology. They are paranoid that old light bulbs can’t be had anymore. So, there are those people who are hoarders. We have people who buy enough light bulbs to last them the rest of their lives, and then store them under their beds and in their closets.
How have light bulbs been changing?
Well, there was traditionally the old fashioned incandescent light bulb that you screwed into a regular socket. Then to get more efficient, they added little halogen bulbs.
Halogen bulbs are more or less the same thing, but they are slightly more efficient because they work at a higher temperature and give you slightly more light for the amount of electricity.
Then, we put in the compact fluorescents, which were very efficient but no one really like them that much because of the color. But they have gotten better.
Then the LEDs came in and have gotten very good to the point they are taking the place of almost everything else except for low wattage incandescent bulbs. Incandescent bulbs above 40 watts have been banished by Congress. So, that’s sort of where bulbs are going.
How do you feel about the new bulbs?
I think they are wonderful. They will eventually put us out of business because if bulbs last so much longer, people will buy fewer of them.
What’s something that the average person doesn’t realize about bulbs?
They don’t realize that the color of the light is very important. Most people buy a traditional warm color light bulb because that’s what they’ve always had, that’s what they’re used to, but in reality a traditional light bulb makes everything yellow.
The traditional colors only work well if you have ambers or mahoganys, but it really doesn’t work well if you have any other color in your room.
What is a common mistake people make with bulbs?
The only mistake people tend to make is to put any light bulb into any socket. It’s important that the bulb be the correct shape that the fixture was designed for. Otherwise you are lighting up the inside of your fixture and not necessarily getting light in the room.
So, if you put a household bulb shape inside a recessed ceiling fixture, you’re basically lighting up the inside of the ceiling. So, it’s not very bright in the room so you buy a bigger one and use more electricity and still not getting enough light because the attic is looking great, but the room isn’t.
Do a lot of customers discover they’ve been using the wrong bulb?
Yes, they sometimes ask for the light bulb they want and we say “What are you doing with it?”.
After thirty plus years of working here, what have you learned about bulbs and people?
People want what they want and it doesn’t matter if it makes much sense. So, that’s ok. We give them our advice. If they don’t want to hear our advice, we give them what they want even if we know it’s wrong. Sometimes they come back and say we were right.
Do you have a favorite bulb?
Yeah, I like the full spectrum light bulbs. They are also being phased out because of the energy law. There are newer variations coming, but they are not really here yet. The ones that are coming are not good enough yet. So, to some extent, I’m one of the hoarders, but just until the technology catches up.
Antique Edison bulbs in an Urban Chandy chandelier
If you could select a bulb that epitomizes New York, which one would it be?
I would select the antique light bulbs, the ones with interesting filaments. They are reminiscent of the turn of the century. It is an older style that New Yorkers once used, everybody used, but New Yorkers held onto it longer and they are bringing it back. They’re now available in dozens of variations. They’re really interesting.
Why do you think the store has been so successful?
I’m told that other people are saying the internet is hurting business, but we aren’t finding that. We are just here seven days a week and we can pretty much solve anyone’s problem.
220 East 60th Street
New York, New York 10022
[This interview has been edited]