Looking bright in the Chilean capital

Santiago’s Merced Street glows by the light of its many lamp shops.

Merced Street lights up center city. Photo by Brett Thompson/Flickr
Merced Street lights up center city. Photo by Brett Thompson/Flickr

Probably one of Chile’s most peculiar qualities is the way similar businesses tend to huddle together, sharing the same area and clientele. Whole streets can be identified just by what they sell: San Antonio and Agustinas is the optician sector; San Diego Street is seemingly one giant bicycle store; and on Victoria Street it’s possible to find just about all things leather, from dress shoes to riding chaps.

On Merced, just between San Antonio and Mac Iver streets, the specialty is lamps of all shapes and sizes. They hang down like vines from the ceiling winking through frosted glass or crowd on antique wooden tables like technicolor mushrooms, a forest of light in the hushed nighttime darkness.

The lamp shop trend began in downtown a little over 40 years ago. In 1968, Romanian immigrant and fur dealer Bertoldo Brender was one of the first to open a lamp shop on Merced.  He was followed by Amado Gottreux at the end of the 70’s, and by the beginning of the 80’s other competitors had sprung up around them. Hervin Aedo, fellow shop owner and one-time apprentice to Brender explained that the competition hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing.

“The good thing about everyone being on the same block is that everyone turns on their lights at the same time and people come over and buy,” he said.

At the height of Merced’s popularity in the mid 80’s there were 12 shops that catered to a diverse crowd of office workers and wealthier clients who wanted iron lamps for their country homes. As the decade wore on, those same trail blazers that had ignited the street saw the market begin to dim with the arrival of retail stores, supermarkets and Asian imports.

The 90’s saw an influx of young inhabitants that revitalized center city with an interest in small, DIY business and the arts. Today only six lamp shops remain, but as city expert Genaro Cuadros explained, those that have been able to adapt to emerging trends have survived.

“Young people began to come back to the downtown and the revived the local businesses, including the lamp shops, because the people that live here are looking for products with unique designs, ones that aren’t on the mass market.”

For Aedo, that meant adding Oriental styles to his already existing iron, bronze and teardrop lamp selections. Others began to offer customized lamps or expanded their business to include light bulbs and electronics.

The resilience of the Merced lamp shop owners was perhaps best summed up by Patricio Tapia when he asked, “How are we going to turn off the lights when we’re Lamp Row?”

Whether you need a new chandelier for the dining room or just simply want to admire the aurora of lights, on Merced at dusk, everything is illuminated.