The Lights Go Out
By Alan Wright
‘Illuminations’, the lighting shop in Queens Road, conducted its final trades last month after a prolonged series of closing down sales. In the fashion of the times the premises have been leased to yet another hair salon, due to open shortly, apparently relocating from Australia. It is the end of one man’s 50-year business career in Hastings. It also seems a marker for the passing of an era for local independent retail.
In 1969 my eldest brother, Jon Wright, then aged 20, having worked for three years already in ‘Abrahams’ TV & Radio Shop, spotted a gap in the market. Being a good salesman, he saw an empty quality off-licence premises in Queens Road and said to our parents: “That would make a great lighting shop.” They bought the freehold and leased it to him for a trial period.
At the official opening of the shop in 1969 under the name of ‘The Lighting Centre’, the then Mayor said he admired the pluck of the young man, but couldn’t see a lighting shop lasting very long at that end of Queens Road. Fifty years later it was still there, after so many locally owned shops had disappeared.
On opening, the colours and décor were distinctly of the period: purple paint and felt-covered display boards with mustard carpet tiles. It stocked ground-breaking British manufactured lighting, such as popular ‘lava lamps’ and lamp shades made of perspex and cat gut. Ceramic lamp bases were popular, and brass wall lights from Portugal sold by the bucketful. Glass and crystal chandeliers from Czechoslovakia and art glass from Italy were also stocked. Jon used to attend international lighting exhibitions and the annual British lighting show. The youthful optimism of the times was reflected in a carnival float with the theme of ‘Flower Power’. The oil crisis of 1973-4 bringing weekly power cuts prompted a visit to France to stock up with a van-load of candles.
The mid- to late ‘70s saw an expansion along the coast with shops in Brighton, Worthing and Eastbourne, including Bexhill within a department store. A warehouse and distribution centre in Beaconsfield Road was also acquired. It was a family-supported business, with Mum doing the book-keeping. I had little personal involvement, only helping out with shop decorating and fitting during my art student days. However I remember working overnight to complete one of the new shop fittings.
The expansion proved over-optimistic, with the Eastbourne shop in particular coming up against better-resourced competition, and there were some painful financial losses. However the Queens Road shop recovered, re-branded as ‘Classic Lighting’ in the late ‘80s, specialising in more traditional lighting lines, but with always a flair for the unusual. Then came another expansion inland, including a shop in Tunbridge Wells, with a further re-branding to ‘Illuminations’ in around 2000.
The advent of DIY stores, followed by supermarkets stocking lighting products and, more recently, internet marketing, has led to a very challenging sales climate. Disposable incomes in Hastings have reduced over the same period. A valiant campaign for traditional light bulbs seemed to go against the wind of change.
‘Illuminations’ still trades in Tunbridge Wells. And there are still local entrepreneurs finding ways to bring more bespoke and creative products for local needs, which in turn can support local economy and employment. But it does feel like the end of an era of local and independent high street retailers.
Jon is grateful for the support of family, for local customers over the years and for the work of shop assistants over the last five decades.
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