A look inside the Lamp Factory Outlet
CANTON — Walking through the Lamp Factory Outlet, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. From the outside, the large building looks plain, but inside it’s a thick forest of lamps — all shapes, sizes, colors and designs.
There are simple stand-up lamps with no-nonsense metal bases and intricate table lamps painted with whimsical, galloping horses. At the base of one little lamp, a sculpted family of black bears laze around in a canoe. There is everything and anything. So, the other day when co-owner Bart Smith said that nearly all these lamps were designed right there in Canton, it was impossible not to ask the immediate, obvious question.
“And that would be me,” Smith said, grinning and laughing, which he does a lot. “And I don’t have any schooling to do that, either.”
This hidden talent has to be a “gift from God,” he added, one that still kind of surprises him. Though the 44-year-old is not the type of guy to call himself an artist, he is one, as he constantly finds inspiration for new lamps wherever he goes. Maybe he sees a bedpost in a catalog he likes, or maybe he falls for a bear sculpture someone has given him. He proudly showed off a piggy bank he had used to make a lamp’s base.
Since he began designing in 1996, he’s created everything from classic lamps to some incorporating snowshoes, boat paddles and fishing rods. Anything goes — as long as people want to buy it.
“I’ve never really realized I’ve had a gift,” Smith said, modestly. “I’m just blessed with ideas, that’s all.”
He's certain that Coastal Lamp Mfg., Inc., where he’s worked since he was 16 or 17, is blessed too. The company, which began in 1955 in Florida and was brought to Canton by his wife's family about 20 years later, is constantly creating new looks and models, but feels like a throwback to a bygone era. It's still family-run, with a total of 16 employees, most of whom are either in the family or have been with the company so long they might as well be. In fact, the last longtime lamp designer was Smith's mother-in-law, Barbara Gann. She is still a co-owner of the place, along with her husband, Marshall, as well as their son, Kenny, and Smith's wife, Candy.
Here, there aren’t a lot of fancy machines or assembly lines. Instead, almost all the work is done by hand — from pouring molds and painting, to cleaning and shipping. Sometimes the company uses work by a local ceramist, and in the past it has employed a nearby wood turner, but for the most part, everything Coastal Lamp ships out comes from right under its roof.
It’s a massive daily undertaking — one Smith never planned on helping run. But when he and Candy were dating back in high school, he ended up helping her parents out one day. To his surprise, he never left.
“It’s kind of like the mob — you get in it and then you can’t get out. That’s what happened to me,” he said, chuckling. “But I like it. I wouldn’t change anything about it.”
In a time when so many manufacturing companies have closed their doors or sent their business overseas, Coastal Lamp has managed to stay in Haywood County. While it may not get a flood of walk-in buyers every day, the business has a thriving online and wholesale presence, with most of its lamps going to resort areas across the East. Though the company produces all kinds of lamps, it specializes in coastal and mountain themes.
Smith explained that the question of moving the operation out of the country has come up every once in a while. But the family's answer has always been clear.
“We said, 'No, we’re going to stay here and fight to keep it American made,'” he said.
In addition to the simple pride of seeing these lamps created daily, there is a practical reason for keeping everything so local. This way, Smith can oversee every aspect of the lamps' creation. If he realizes he wants to change anything, he can do it right away without having to call a plant manager in a foreign country. Also, if anything goes wrong, he knows it quickly, instead of having to wait for a wasted shipment from China or India or wherever to arrive.
Perhaps most important, however, is that keeping Coastal Lamp here has allowed for Smith to preserve something special, something that goes beyond the thousands of lamps the company has produced over the years. Smith, his coworkers and co-owners have raised their children at the factory. They have created a tight-knit little community, one where everyone cares about one another and knows the ins and outs of their lives. All this cohesion creates a lot of good energy, strong friendships, employee loyalty — and some nice lamps, too.
Suffice it to say, when Smith describes his product and his company, he doesn’t sound like a salesman. He sounds like a true believer.
“I do think we make the very best product you can buy when it comes to rustic and coastal living,” he said, with that friendly smile of his. “And that’s a good feeling”
The Lamp Factory Outlet, featuring lamps by Coast Lamp Mfg. Inc., is located at 35 Church St. in Canton and is open to public. The business can be reached at 648-7876 or visited online www.coastlampmfg.com.