Craig Chalmers stocks so many light bulbs that in 10 years he has rarely bothered to take inventory. His shop, Light Bulbs Unlimited, a South Tampa institution for a decade, moved last fall from its famous location at Dale Mabry Highway and Neptune Street to a new spot down the road at the former Turtle's music store.
Customers can now swivel on chrome-and-vinyl barstools that advertise Sylvania Bulbs and talk to sales people behind stoplight-red counters. Discussions range from the intricacies of, say, a sodium low-pressure bulb that fits in a street lamp to the proper halogen bulb for a bedside reading light.
Spied on Chalmers' own desk: a lamp in the shape of a martini glass with a green plastic olive and a small red bulb inside.
"The same bulb we use in Rudolph's nose," he said earnestly.
Chalmers does a brisk business among homeowners looking for unique landscape lights, halogen bulbs, chili pepper party lights (so popular he recently ordered a case in every color), and surprisingly, those lowly 20- or 40-watt bulbs that are becoming harder and harder to find.
"We're getting a lot of people who've looked at the big home and discount stores who can't find what they need," Chalmers said. "It's just too expensive for those stores to stock shelves full of something they only sell a few of. Plus, people don't want to wander around a big store looking for just one small item."
A native of Benoni, South Africa, Chalmers moved to Florida in the early 1990s to study marketing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. His father owned the biggest electrical wholesale company in South Africa, he said. Family friends who owned other Light Bulbs Unlimited stores urged him to buy a franchise. There are now seven Light Bulbs Unlimited stores in the state of Florida alone, "and they're all busy, all the time," Chalmers said.
The demand for a light bulb store might have something to do with the plethora of funky lamps on the market today, many requiring specialized bulbs. Plus, he said, the current home decorating craze has spawned an interest in sophisticated lighting both indoors and out.
In his own store, Chalmers stocks hanging lamps shaped like biplanes, blimps, ocean liners and bumble bees. There are lamps the jewel-tone colors of marbleized Easter eggs and neon lights shaped like cowboy boots, cactus and coyotes.
Chalmers, 35, and his brother, Bradley, 33, recently bought out their partners and now own the South Tampa shop, the only one of its kind in the area. They carry every sort of bulb known to man, from a variety that's "small as a grain of rice" to a 2,000-watt mega-bulb designed to lure motorists to car lots.
The bulk of their business comes from restaurant chains, though they supply bulbs to car dealers, stadiums, the Lowry Park Zoo, the Florida Aquarium, even military landing strips.
Over the years, the store has been burglarized on several occasions, particularly in the old location, where drunks, fascinated by the novelty neon lamps in the front window, would smash the window with their pickup trucks, then drop the lamps on the way out, "because they were so drunk," Chalmers said with a laugh. "What a waste."
Recently, he said, a thief crawled through the air conditioning ducts. Did he make off with anything exotic?
Boxes of those fat, gum ball-colored Christmas lights, say? Or the martini glass with the pimento-stuffed olive light?
"No," Chalmers said, a little puzzled. "He just took sunglasses, shirts and money. He wasn't very interested in lighting."