An Artisan chandelier brightened our condo during the early 1990s. My wife loved the store, and its showpieces eventually grew on me.
Artisan is still around, but it has moved to a cluttered little shop in a secluded corner of a Fairfax County industrial park where the owner has adapted its business plan to the digital age. It has evolved out of necessity from a mom-and-pop storefront on a first-name basis with clients into a niche retailer whose audience stretches from Taiwan to Italy.
Antique lighting doesn’t mean antique thinking.
“A lot of lighting stores have closed, but not me,” said owner Cyrus Manafzadeh, 72, who has been selling and repairing lighting since Ronald Reagan was president. “I buy and sell a lot on the Internet now, but I still have people that purchased from me in the 1980s.”
Manafzadeh’s business has endured two big hits over the past dozen years. First came a sales decline because of the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing recession. Then came the novel coronavirus pandemic that flattened sales for the past three months. Virus-related restrictions nearly stranded him on a buying trip to Europe, where he was hunting for the art deco antiques that are his bread and butter.
“We sell a wide range of lighting from 1880s to 1970s, but mostly we try to have rare and interesting lighting,” Manafzadeh said.
Those pieces aren’t cheap. A nickel-and-glass art deco chandelier made in France during the 1920s sells for $5,500. A silver-and-crystal chandelier from 1880s France that was converted from gas to electric sells for nearly $10,000.
The average piece costs about $2,000 retail, on which Manafzadeh nets about 10 percent for himself. He negotiates on price. “You have to when you are selling antiques,” he said.
The business has changed since the 1980s, when he served decorators and homeowners during the Washington market home-buying boom. Back then he met customers face-to-face and went on long sales trips to find inventory.
Not surprisingly, the biggest development has been the Internet, with its easy photo access that expanded his potential market.
Artisan circulates about 400 pieces — about half of his inventory — on the website at any one time. He adds 10 new items a week when he updates the site, and adds 20 during the holiday season.
“More than 50 percent of our sales is from our website,” he said. “Our clients go online, where they will browse before coming to visit us.”
The Internet also allows him to spend less time scouring Mid-Atlantic flea markets and the south of France for treasures and spend more time with his wife at their Bethesda home. He still takes twice-yearly trips to France, Spain, Italy and Belgium to maintain contacts he has made over the years.
“In the old days, I went for five to six weeks, driving my truck 14 hours a day and stopping in every single city between Barcelona, Paris and the south of France,” he said. “Now I go for three weeks.”
He is on a first-name basis with many customers, with whom he has an “I-will-hold-it-for-you” approach.
“I am from old school,” Manafzadeh said. “People call up, and pick up things, take it home and if they don’t like it, they bring it back. That’s why I lasted for 40-some years.”
He closed the Cleveland Park shop in March 2018 after a four-decade run when his business partner, who owned 20 percent, wanted to retire. Manafzadeh moved Artisan to the current location, a cross between a lighting museum and an industrial repair shop.
His revenue is about one-third of the $1.5 million-a-year halcyon days from the ’80s through the early 2000s, when he had a mid-six-figure income.
The resourceful businessman still employs two full-timers who handle repairs and loves going to his shop, where he manages phone and email inquiries and assists the intrepid customers who are able to track him down. (It isn’t easy finding the place.)
“Someone who used to come to my old shop was looking for me to repair something and called me,” Manafzadeh said. “Then she went online to a Cleveland Park website after we finished the job and said that I was still in business in Fairfax. Suddenly I received 10 calls.”
He is reducing the price of many of his items to help reboot the business after the stay-at-home orders.
“I was hoping to have a 20 to 30 percent increase in sales this year,” he said. “The coronavirus stopped everything.”
Manafzadeh has known lighting since growing up in Iran, where his family manufactured lights.
“I made my first table lamp when I was 13 years old from carved wood and plastic,” he said. He arrived in the United States in January 1973 to study finance and marketing at American University. He married during college and decided to stay in Washington.
After a couple of retail jobs, he scraped together $15,000 — helped by the sale of a rug and a pair of automobiles (Chevrolet Impala and Nissan 240Z) — and opened his first lighting store in front of the Metro on Connecticut.
Manafzadeh knew he could not compete with the big lighting stores on sales and scale, so he opted for a niche business in high-end lighting targeted to upscale Washingtonians.
“The best way to go was older lighting that I could fix and make one of a kind,” he said.
The business flourished during the 1980s after interest rates declined and people began buying and decorating homes.
“There was a time when I was selling my merchandise before it even arrived. I would take the photos myself in Europe, and when I returned I would show designers photos and they would say, ‘That is what I need.’ ”
He still gets a charge out of coming into the office six days a week, and expects to keep at it for at least three more years. He said he will probably net between $50,000 and $100,000 this year.
“I am 72, I have Medicare and I have retirement,” he said. “I’m not rich, but I’m not poor. I just like doing it. After the coronavirus, the economy turns around. We are going to have a good year.”