BY Tami Vigness
When it comes to lighting, there’s probably no one in Grand Forks who knows the business better than Sonia Roberton. For 30 years, she has been honing her skills in lighting and design, not to mention keeping up with the ever-changing lighting industry.
When Roberton began her career at the Lighthouse, located at Border States Electric in 1992, she couldn’t have known that she would one day own and operate Grand Forks’ premier lighting store. For eight years, Roberton worked with vendors from all over to provide unique and custom lighting services for both commercial and residential projects in Greater Grand Forks. But like most good stories, hers also came with a twist. When the Lighthouse closed, Roberton knew she wasn’t ready to give up the industry that she had come to know so well. Equipped with the knowledge she had gained over the years, strong relationships with lighting vendors, and a passion to continue to provide Grand Forks with unique lighting options not found anywhere else in town, Roberton took the plunge and opened The Lighting Gallery in June of 2000.
With mixed feelings, Roberton recently moved The Lighting Gallery from its former location in the center of town to a beautiful new building on the south end. “It was a family affair,” joked Jon Mattson, who works in sales and design at the gallery, and is also Roberton’s son. Over the course of ten days, the small crew of mostly family members disassembled the showroom that The Lighting Gallery had called home for more than 20 years, wrapped the fragile pieces in blankets, boxed hundreds of files, and made countless trips back and forth to the new store. The new location offered Roberton a blank canvas to really showcase what the store has to offer. Walls of windows bathe the showroom in natural light. Chandeliers are mounted from the building’s high ceilings, pendant lights dangle whimsically above seating arrangements, and custom-built displays feature sconces and wall lighting. Despite the hesitation she felt about leaving her former location, the daunting task of moving inventory, and designing everything from scratch, Roberton is incredibly pleased with the result. “There has been such support from the community,” she said. “If you build it, they will come.”
In addition to all the lighting fixtures you can imagine, the new space has provided the ability to offer more furniture and home décor items. Artwork hangs throughout the gallery, shelves of colorful throw pillows line one wall, and other accent pieces are thoughtfully displayed throughout the store. The gallery features a variety of nooks showcasing an inviting sectional sofa situated around a fireplace, modern dining tables and chairs, cozy bedroom furniture, a soaking tub positioned between two vanities, and a full kitchen. Each of these spaces serves to make the store feel more like a home and help shoppers envision what their own spaces could look like.
As any savvy business owner will tell you, it’s important to keep learning and staying on top of the latest trends. “In this industry, you have to keep up or get out,” Roberton said. She explained that the industry is constantly evolving and stressed the importance of always learning. Roberton and her staff attend large markets in Dallas and Las Vegas that showcase the latest styles in lighting and décor. They get a sneak peek of the newest trends and are able to select items that fit with the local aesthetic styles. They also make sure to stay informed of changes in electrical and building codes to ensure a higher level of quality in their services. It’s things like this that really set The Lighting Gallery apart from the big box stores. “There’s no such thing as a typical day around here,” Roberton laughed. “No two days are the same. We’re both a retailer and wholesaler, which makes us unique,” she continued. While the store sees many customers that come in to buy a fixture or two, much of The Lighting Gallery’s clientele are homeowners designing their newly constructed homes and business owners either building or remodeling their spaces. Roberton, and the other lighting specialists at the Gallery, work directly with the builders and electricians, ensuring that each lighting element is not only installed properly, but is also appropriately suited to the space. The “rules” of lighting have changed as home designs have changed. Older homes often have individual rooms that don’t tie into other spaces. Newer designs typically feature more open-concept spaces and generally allow for larger light fixtures or focal pieces. Office remodels and new builds no longer have harsh fluorescent lighting, but rather feature warm lamps, soft recessed lighting, and maybe some stylish, yet functional, hanging pieces.
With the beautiful new space, Roberton has big plans. Already, The Lighting Gallery has hosted holiday events and open houses, inviting the community to come and see the new location, do a little shopping, and maybe get some inspiration for their own spaces. When the weather turns warmer, Roberton plans to construct an outdoor area to showcase landscape lighting and design.
For Roberton and her crew, it’s all about being a full-service store: everything from helping customers decide on the best pieces that fit both their taste and their space, to hand-delivering orders to the job site. It’s a level of service not often seen; but for Roberton, it’s what sets her business apart. “I’ve been working with some of my customers for more than 20 years, the relationships I’ve built are so important,” Roberton said. “My vendors, sales reps, and customers…they are the best part of my job.” G
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From Issue 4, 2022
PHOTOS BY: Manstrom Photography