Lighting pros look on the bright side

Husband and wife team have nurtured business through thick and thin

Keren Henderson Published:

Sitting at a large wooden desk half occupied by Jacques the big black cat, Marsha Nickles often ponders ways to get the word out about her business.

Like other small, local businesses, Militia Electric Company – a lighting fixtures shop – doesn’t have the advertising power or name recognition of chain stores.

Then there’s the fact that she had to close the West Second Street location down during November and December to take care of her husband, Mike, who came down with a sudden illness last October. The store is open again, but because of Mike’s illness, Marsha has reduced store hours to 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday and anytime by appointment.

“But I want people to know we’re still here,” she said. “I don’t want to tell a down-on-their-luck, sad sort of story; that’s not it at all. I love this place; we love our customers.”

The Nickles admit they often choose to look on the bright side of business. The lights at Militia Electric Company first turned on in 1980 – smack in the middle of a recession and housing market slump.

When asked why they were opening a business during rough economic times, Mike would answer: “I’m going to look at the positive side of it; the only thing we can possibly do is improve ourselves.”

Mike’s saying proved true, and “it took off,” Marsha says.

West Second Street – not nearly as respectable in 1980 as it is today – was a unique choice for a mom and pop lighting fixtures shop. But the Nickles bought the old Sinclair Station – “just about the oldest, ugliest gas station you could imagine” – and transformed it into what Marsha calls her “favorite place.”

Militia Electric Company started out selling lighting fixtures, but as demand from customers grew, it branched out to lamps, lampshades, bulbs and, ultimately, any lighting part possible. Mike, an electrician who worked as a foreman at Toyota until retirement, can also fix any lighting fixture.

That’s been handy in this latest recession, he says, as many people try to do with what they’ve got rather than buy something new.

“Say you’re up there cleaning your lights for Christmas, and you break a globe, and you think you’re done for,” Marsha said. “We can fix it.”

Their showroom, which can be seen from the street through a large bay window, has new inventory as well as older pieces that are hard to find.

“When we started out, all our products were American-made,” Mike says. “But over the years, more and more distributors have turned to imported products.”

That has led to a significant loss in quality, he says.

Still, “Every chance we get, we buy American-made,” Marsha says.

It’s not a surprising practice for a company with a name and logo that honors the patriotic spirit of the American Revolution’s militiamen.

“Today, militia kind of has a negative connotation,” Mike says. “But when we picked the name, we picked it to be patriotic.”

The Nickels, who celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in August, recognize that their small shop may seem a little old-school, right down to the antique red, white and blue wallpaper in the showroom, yet that’s who they are.

The Frankfort natives (Mike was born in Louisville, but he doesn’t claim it) married right out of high school and never left town. Marsha raised their two kids, Mary and Mike, in the store, and more recently cared for their two grandkids, Jake and Rachel, in the same spot. Mike Jr. and his wife, Dana, thought the downtown shop with grandma and grandpa was the perfect place for their kids to start out.

“Customers still come in and ask me about my grandkids,” Marsha says, adding that when she first started studying customer service, all the literature she read told her that her customers would never be her friends.

“And that’s just not true,” she says. “They may not be my best friends but we do become friends. And I can’t say enough good things about our repeat customers who have stuck with us all these years.”

Today, with Mike working as much as he can as he recovers and Marsha carrying a lot of the business load, they’re even more grateful for their customers.

“We can’t offer the hours of a larger store, but we sure can throw in the service,” Marsha says. “We love this.”

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