Bulb Beam travels, illuminates history

Display sheds light on West Orange’s history while drawing people into the Main Street corridor

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Visitors to City Workshop Men’s Supply Company will find something unique on display. There, among the racks of clothing, stands a large antique wooden beam with several replicas of historic lightbulbs attached to it. One could categorize the piece as an example of steampunk design, but it is by no means just a trendy art project. Instead, it is the latest promotional campaign from the Downtown West Orange Alliance.

The Bulb Beam will circulate throughout the downtown corridor in the coming years, spending roughly one week at each store or eatery that wants it. Business owners who host the beam will have the opportunity to offer discounts or campaigns in conjunction with the object to give residents an added incentive to see it. By doing so, the Downtown Alliance hopes people will be willing to stop by businesses they may never have checked out previously.

“We’re trying to drive traffic downtown by making this something that’s a little bit special that you can bring your kids to,” Brick, who is the alliance’s chairman of promotion and advertising, told the West Orange Chronicle in a June 2 phone interview.

Brick’s idea for the Bulb Beam came out of his experience as the owner of a specialty industrial packaging company, for which he often designs floor and counter displays. Having had success with such tools in the past, and knowing the advertising credo that “continuity creates awareness,” he thought an ongoing display campaign could generate attention for the downtown district. And he thought a project that depicted the evolution of the lightbulb would be a perfect tie-in to the township, where Thomas Edison lived and worked.

So Brick got to work, obtaining a post-Civil War wooden beam donated by the Real Antique Wood Company. He cleaned and painted it, and then attached documents regarding Edison’s Battery factory and the Detroit electric cars its batteries powered. He also connected an electrical harness and six pipe arms jutting out from the sides. On every arm is a lightbulb replicating the designs of the earliest bulbs ever made, from 1883 to 1920.

Each lightbulb is interesting to examine, but Brick hopes that community members will particularly take note of the 1910 GE Edison Mazda bulb, upon which the West Orange logo is based. That bulb was revolutionary for its time, according to the alliance member, since it was the first to use a tungsten filament. As a result, he said it used a lot less electricity and lasted much longer than anything manufactured before it.

“This bulb was the LED bulb of its time,” Brick said, adding that he even put an LED bulb with the same design as the 1910 bulb on a seventh arm to symbolize the connection between the two technologies.

But Brick does not want residents just to be content looking at the lightbulbs. Rather, he said his goal was to inspire people to look further into their town’s history because there is so much to explore. From Edison’s innovations to the number of governors the township has produced to the fact that the first auto race in the state was held here, he said West Orange is a truly fascinating place. And its downtown could easily be one of the most historically unique in the country, he said.

“Does it get any better? It doesn’t,” Brick said, stressing that it is vital community members “celebrate it, be proud of it and use it as a springboard into our future.”

Of course, all this history would not be exposed through the Bulb Beam if businesses didn’t display it. Fortunately for the DWOA, Brick said the initiative has been met with overwhelming enthusiasm from local businesses. He said so many merchants have asked to hosts the beam that it should continue to travel for at least a few years. In fact, he said some businesses beyond the downtown corridor have requested to display the object, though he said it will exclusively stay around Main Street for now.

City Workshop is the second location to host the Bulb Beam after it was officially unveiled on May 26 at Santander Bank. And while the piece had just arrived at the time co-owner Roger Stevens spoke with the Chronicle, Stevens was excited to display it. First, he said it fits perfectly with his store’s industrial workshop theme, which was itself inspired by the nearby Edison Battery factory. Edison’s lightbulb is even included in its logo, he said, so taking in the bulb-adorned beam was a “no-brainer.”

Stevens said he does not yet know what promotion he will offer along with the Bulb Beam, though he is considering running a contest so people can answer questions for prizes. Regardless of what he decides on, the merchant said he is sure the object will benefit his business on its own.

“It’s a conversation piece,” Stevens said in a June 2 phone interview. “For all retail places, conversation pieces help bring people into the store. And then from there, they may want to buy something.”

The City Workshop proprietor also lauded the Downtown Alliance for providing such a piece, crediting it as a constant supporter of his store. But it is all in a day’s work for DWOA Executive Director Megan Brill, who said everything the organization does is intended to help downtown businesses. That goes for the Bulb Beam initiative, with Brill pointing out that the alliance will showcase each business that hosts the beam on Facebook.

In doing so, Brill said she hopes residents will make a personal connection with the business owners.

“When you realize that there’s a good business downtown and that there’s residents who are actually the owners of it, you remember them,” Brill said in a June 1 phone interview. “And when you need the products and services that you buy every day, you can remember to buy them downtown.”

Brill praised Brick for coming up with such a unique concept, but Brick is not finished yet. The DWOA member said he has ideas for additional displays that could traverse the downtown district, though he would like to see how the Bulb Beam does before pursuing them. And he is optimistic that the project will prove successful, pointing out that there is no downside for the businesses that host it. Even if the concept does not generate as much interest as expected, he said it will at least provide a new perspective on why the downtown’s businesses and history are worthy of being appreciated.

“Sometimes you need a little torch to light up the night,” Brick said. “This is an electrical torch 8 feet tall.”

Photos Courtesy of Mike Brick