Nominate your favorite Maine businesses for Best of Maine!

In South Portland, the Lamp Repair Shop Shines a Light on the Artistry of Old Fixtures

Not to throw shade, but new lamps have nothing on Brian Allen’s rehabbed antiques.

Brian Allen fixing a lamp, at the Lamp Repair Shop in South Portland
By Sara Anne Donnelly
Photos by Michael D. Wilson
From our April 2024 Home & Garden issue

As a child, Brian Allen idolized Caractacus Potts, Dick Van Dyke’s eccentric inventor in the 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. “The fact that he had all this stuff in his house and he would just take pieces and build whatever he wanted, that guy fascinated me,” says Allen, who taught himself everything from carpentry to electronics repair and is a trained blacksmith and goldsmith. Allen was working at a Portland hardware store in 1986 when he started tinkering with the burned-out lamps customers brought in. While rewiring a rare Tiffany counterbalanced desk lamp, he became enamored of the artistry in antique lighting. Soon after, he began running a lamp-repair business out of his South Portland home. He opened the Lamp Repair Shop in Willard Square in 1996, and, in 2001, expanded to his current space in the Knightville neighborhood (105 Ocean St., South Portland; 207-799-9159).

Brian Allen, pictured here and above, has given tens of thousands of old lamps a glow up. He also crafts original fixtures, like the “rocket ship” with a fire-extinguisher body at left.

Workstations dominate the shop, which is packed, Potts-style, with the trappings of Allen’s trade: lamp bodies and harps, spools of wire, tubes of epoxy, boxes of screws, bolts, plugs, and sockets, plus myriad pliers, wire cutters, screwdrivers, and tools designated for specific tasks, like a tiny gearwheel for prying corroded sockets out of antique sconces and wrenches Allen has heated and bent at just the right angle for accessing hard-to-reach bolts. Intermingled on tables and in display cases are items he sells, including refurbished antiques and Frankensteined originals, like nightlights with emu-egg shades (“VERY COOL” announces an accompanying handwritten sign) and a three-foot-tall “rocket ship” fixture crafted from a spent fire extinguisher.

Asked why lamps continue to light him up, Allen heads to the back of the shop, past another handwritten sign reading “Lamp repairs while you wait! Current waiting time: 2 weeks.” Among two dozen rehabbed fixtures ready to be picked up, he points to a 1920s-era bridge floor lamp (designed to illuminate the eponymous card game) with a spiraled bronze stand adorned with florets and an amber-colored glass finial. “There was no need for them to add the flowers and crystal, right?” Allen said. “But they did because those things are really cool. I’m drawn to details added to old lighting that didn’t need to be there but make a lamp beautiful.”

Allen keeps a running tally of his repairs by recording hash marks on a roll of paper attached to a vintage wooden memo board. At last count, he was up to 58,462. He prides himself on never turning down a job. Or almost never. “Last year, this lady dragged in a box and inside was a pulverized crystal chandelier that had fallen three stories onto a tile floor,” Allen says. “She was devastated when I said I couldn’t fix it. But what was I supposed to do? I’m not a miracle worker.”

Illuminating Period Fixtures
Three ways to identify an authentic antique or vintage lamp.

Brian Allen fixing a lamp

BODY: It should feel heavy, as most antique and vintage pieces have bases cast from bronze, iron, or zinc; they also have bolted (as opposed to fused) joints that can be loosened for repairs. On ceramic lamps, look for a rough hole in the bottom made by a hammer and chisel, indicating the fixture was handcrafted and is likely at least 100 years old.

SOCKET: On old lamps, the metal usually matches the body material. If the socket is labeled “Made in USA,” the fixture was probably created before the early 1970s, when imported parts took over the market.

CORD: Early lamps typically have cotton-wrapped cords and Bakelite plugs with same-size prongs (that do not meet modern safety standards and must be replaced). Rubber- and plastic-insulated wire and plugs with corresponding wide and narrow prongs were introduced in the 1960s.

April 2024, Down East Magazine

Get all of our latest stories delivered straight to your mailbox every month. Subscribe to Down East magazine.