I’m new to Berkeley, California so my discoveries light a path to novel places in my Hopkins neighborhood and beyond.
Solano has become a favorite, walkable destination so it’s not surprising that I would find myself perusing its charming shops for basic needs and more.
This past week, in preparation for my musical presentation at the Gooden College Connection Dinner and Silent Auction, I needed concert clothes, so I stopped-off at Sotte Voce, where I selected a gorgeous, though pricey ensemble (pants, blouse and sweater). It was perfect for the occasion.
Not too far from this store that had an uncanny musical tie-in, (sotte voce refers to the soft pedal on a pianoforte) I waltzed into Ensler Lighting at 1793 Solano Avenue with its generous supply of “harps.”
These are indispensable to lamps and hold the shades in place, not to forget their “connection” to pianos but in bigger proportion. The cast iron plate that supports the pressure of strings is shaped like a harp, while the pedals are mounted on a lyre.
Howard Ensler, owner, is no slouch when it comes to lamps and musical metaphors.
As soon as I described my Stiffel lamp in layman’s terms, not really knowing much about it, he supplied an eclectic description, (“heavy-plated dye cast metal that you shouldn’t polish”) adding that without seeing the lamp, he couldn’t help me.
“Fitting the shade without a lamp is like tuning a piano over the phone,” he said, wisely.
That’s how Howard conducts business: upfront and honest. No short cuts to ring up $$$.
I was in the right place.
A young woman brought in a lamp to acquire Howard’s sagacious advice. I observed his design talent thrown into the mix that drew inquiries about lamp size, color, and shape.
The customer needed Howard’s reassurance that her shade was the right tint, and once she had an affirmative, she re-boxed her bamboo lamp and happily left.
Ensler is quick to point out that 50 percent of his business is lamp “restoration and repair.” The remainder of his revenue is generated from the sale of lamps and shades (don’t forget parts that are essential to keep the lights on).
“I’m not into selling new fixtures. Shoppers can go online for those,” Howard said.
His inventory slant is supported by a snippet he provided about El Cerrito Lighting which closed a few years ago (that’s where I’d acquired my charming glass cello lamp).
“Basically the place went out of business because its dealings with contractors and homeowners fizzled out… Ceiling fixture purchases, for example, were in decline and the dip in new home purchases took its toll.”
Like my grandfather, Howard is Talmudic (scholarly) while he possesses the practical sense of my Ukrainian grandmother. We share common Old Country roots, as it happens.
He’s also a prophet and self-made economist. That’s how he cultivated his niche market of restoring family heirlooms that might otherwise end up at a yard sale or on the sidewalk with a ”please take me” sign.
It’s common knowledge that many people want to keep their family mementos and antiques, but they need a capable person to do the necessary repair.
Howard is their personal savior in many cases.
An eye-catching sample of diverse inventory greets customers as they saunter down Ensler’s narrow aisles:
Shades galore in every size, shape and color; lamp bases like vases and ginger jars; another classified as an “ashtray lamp” (an antique that needs to be rewired-selling for $850) a “banquet lamp,” (originally oil burning, but converted to electrical) a “stainless steel lamp," and a unique Hollywood “movie camera lamp,” that’s NOT for sale, by the way, but on display as an eye-catcher in the store window.
“It was a special gift to me,” Howard said.
From the moment a customer crosses Ensler Lighting’s threshold, Howard’s autographed space resonates with personality. His warmth and willingness to satisfy the needs of each and every individual without time constraints is glaringly apparent.
I waited patiently as he meticulously researched catalog listings for a tiny part in a 1960s glass shade fixture. The customer turned out to be a regular and praised Howard to the sky.
“He treats everyone kindly and dispenses great advice.”
Kudos rose to choir level among those I interviewed.
So how did the Ensler business get started? Howard was a good historian.
“My mother, Elaine Ensler, began selling antiques prior to 1973.
“At first she sold her stuff at shopping malls, but later started a collective of 10 people who rented space at 1501 Solano.”
What was there before?
“An automobile garage with a small attached lending library. Phil Wood, a publisher of note, had put in flooring, lighting, a bathroom, etc. and obtained commercial zoning.”
What exactly did your mother sell?
“She not only stocked antique items, but she restored and sold lighting fixtures and lamps with my help.
“I’d been selling electrical supplies in L.A. so I could source parts for mom’s repairs. She restored, refurbished, fixed, put shades, glass, etc. on her antiques and then put them up for sale.
According to Howard, after his mother’s passing, he eventually purchased the business from his brothers and now partners with “George” in repairing and restoring lamps.
“George comes in quite early and leaves by 3 p.m. I work from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday (the store hours, to be exact).
Why the attenuated schedule?
Howard says customers usually start the day well past the early morning, and besides he and George need adequate repair time.
Ensler emphasizes that he manages the store and does the buying in addition to making repairs.
Two banner headlines at Ensler’s website give an apt description of the establishment and its customer-centered philosophy.
“It’s a service oriented, retail lighting business with over 35 years of experience and customer loyalty."
“We maintain the largest selection of Lamp Parts and Lighting Hardware in Northern California, with over 1500 distinct items in stock.”
To be sure, Ensler Lighting illuminates a path to a museum of items you might otherwise never see in Berkeley or elsewhere, so please hurry up and visit!
Howard will treat you like a member of the family.