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In Character with Kay Newell

A conversation with an interesting Portlander
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Light bulbs going on over her head doesn't necessarily mean that Kay Newell has a bright idea. But the owner of Sunlan Lighting on North Mississippi Avenue has had a few.

Kay Newell would like to tell everyone in Portland to lighten up. Her Sunlan light shop on North Mississippi Avenue carries every kind of light source imaginable, from colored bulbs and embossed Italian bulbs to a bulb with a hologram inside it. And her customers range from the very bright to, well, a little dim.

Portland Tribune: How long have you had this place?

Kay Newell: A little over 20 years.

Tribune: Do you just love light?

Newell: I was working for a thief. I worked for a guy selling light bulbs to businesses for six weeks, and my orders kept falling through, so I wasn't getting my commissions. I called up the customers to find out why my orders fell through and found out he was double shipping. They ordered one box, and he shipped two. They'd send one box back, and I lost my commissions.

Tribune: That's quite a scam.

Newell: I called all the customers and said, "Hey, if I start my own company, will you buy from me?" And they said, "Yes," expecting never to hear from me again. But they did. And they bought.

Tribune: And here you are 20 years later.

Newell: And yesterday I had two of the original customers stop in and pick up light bulbs. That's called turning lemons into lemonade.

Tribune: Yes, but do you have any lemon light bulbs?

Newell: I've got yellow ones. The lemons are the ones people bring in to me and ask for a replacement.

Tribune: Weirdest customer request?

Newell: A man slightly delusional who wanted a black light so he could see where the federal government had implanted a tracer in his shoulder.

Tribune: Why would a black light help him find an implant in his body?

Newell: Black light fluoresces. He thought it would make the device fluoresce in his body.

Tribune: Did you sell him one?

Newell: I sold him what he asked for, but it didn't work because a black light will fluoresce body fluids and his implant, according to him, was embedded inside his body.

Tribune: Is that true, that black light fluoresces body fluids?

Newell: If a cat pees on your carpet you can use a black light blue bulb to fluoresce the urine so you can see where to clean. It works for humans and dog fluid, too.

Tribune: I'm worried about you. With the government imploring all of us to change to compact fluorescents, which are supposed to last forever, won't you be put out of business?

Newell: Nope. People turn compact fluorescents off and on and burn them up fast. Putting them on and leaving them on 24 hours a day, I've had them last for four or five years. The catalog suggests life is based on turning them on one time a day for three hours. In homes, people flip the switch repeatedly, as we have been taught, and burn them out quickly.

Tribune: So am I wasting money switching to the fluorescents?

Newell: In my opinion, yes. The government tells me I'm wrong.

Tribune: You must have fun with some of your customers.

Newell: People have so many different needs and different tastes. I have a large group of young men, they don't know each other, but they're musicians and they have all told me that colored lights help them play better music.

Tribune: Do they all like the same color?

Newell: No, that's the fun part. I have one young man who has four different bulbs in four different colors. I have another young man who prefers green.

Tribune: Well, obviously he's not playing the blues.

Newell: Women prefer pink and amber. Older people and people with seasonal effective disorder prefer the full-spectrum lights.

Tribune: So a woman who is old and has seasonal affective disorder, what do you give her?

Newell: Full-spectrum to read by, and pink for the ambiance.

Tribune: Do you sell a lot of lava lamps?

Newell: We keep one style on hand for the fun of it. My most popular gift for adults to themselves is my fiber optic highlight. It changes colors. It's hypnotic. And I hypnotize them so they buy it.

Tribune: I suppose your nightmare is a power outage?

Newell: Remember the earthquake we had about 12 years ago? We lost one box of nails. We have everything pretty stable.

Tribune: What about the nails?

Newell: They fell all over the floor, and we had to pick them up.