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At Lehman's, the Only Thing That Gets a No Is Electricity

February 27, 2001|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is, in many ways, a very Southern Californian catalog. The goat's milk soap, the copper kettles, the handmade croquet set, the solar-powered reading lamp--taken separately, much of its merchandise would not be out of place in trendy Restoration Hardware or Sur La Table. And its name only heightens that first-glance impression. Lehman's Non-electric Heritage Catalog: Surely this is the brainchild of a 20-something marketing meister trying to cash in on this state's recent power woes. But J.E. Lehman's Ohio-based business is as far from Third Street Promenade or Old Town Pasadena as it gets, if not geographically, then certainly philosophically.

According to founder and president Jay Lehman, its stated goals are: 1) To meet the unique needs of the Amish and others striving to live more simply and self-sufficiently; 2) To put pleasing people over profits.

Not your average American business plan. And yet recently hundreds of Californians have been boosting the company's already healthy sales.

After all, who couldn't use a hand-powered blender or battery-free flashlight or a lantern that doubles as a stove? Especially here in seismically and electrically challenged California. More than 2,500 items can be found in the 160-page catalog--gas-powered refrigerators, wood-burning stoves, grain grinders, butter churns, water filters and oil lamps. Grannyware, clothespins and line, maple syrup taps, weather vanes, sickles and scythes. A Homeric list of gadgets, tools, toys and appliances that have nothing to do with Con Edison, many of them made by Amish craftsmen.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 28, 2001 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Catalog--A story in Tuesday's Southern California Living on Lehman's Non-electric Catalog neglected to include a phone number, which is (888) 438-5346.

"If you can't find it anywhere, you can find it at Lehman's," says Galen Lehman, son of Jay and vice president of operations. "We think of ourselves as the low-tech superstore," adds his sister, Glenda Lehman Ervin, the communications manager.

It may also be the first genuine link between Southern California and the Amish community since Harrison Ford nearly seduced Kelly McGillis in "Witness." According to Glenda, orders from browned- and blacked-out Californians increased 30% in January; for gas-powered refrigerators and oil lamps, sales have tripled.

"We've always done well in the more rural areas of California," says Glenda, "but in the past few months we've seen a real increase from the urban areas."

Ironically enough, some of that new business has come via their Web site, which they redesigned last year (http://www.lehmans.com). As Mennonites, the Lehmans are not prohibited from using technology, but they do try to live a simple life apart from the world. They do not, however, use computers very much in the business itself. Customers can order online, but at the Ohio store, they rely on their staff of 60 employees and paper and pencils.

Many businesses claim to put the customer first, but Lehman's may have the most convincing pitch. In 1955, as the story goes, Jay Lehman found himself without a job. One of the hardware stores in his hometown of Kidron was for sale; he hit his father up for a loan and bought it. Ohio has the largest Amish community in the country and many of his early customers were Amish folks looking for things that the other hardware store in town didn't have--parts for oil lamps, or buggy wheels, wood stoves that were black rather than the ubiquitous brown.

After a few months, Lehman got tired of saying, "No, we don't have that." He started making a list of the items people wanted and took each one as a personal challenge. Parts for an oil-fueled cookstove no longer made in the States? He soon found a company in South America that still made it--ordered the parts and a few extra stoves.

After two years in business, he paid his father back, and then hired him. It was the start of a family business that is as much about search and discovery as it is about sales. Black wood stoves? When the sales rep at the manufacturer he located told him he'd have to commit to a truckload, he said OK, and the largest selection of wood-burning stoves in the country was born. Some of his customers weren't happy with their gasoline-powered wringer washers; Lehman and his staff figured out a way to modify the Maytag model so it didn't vibrate so much. When Maytag discontinued production, Lehman began importing another model from Saudi Arabia. His son estimates they sell 50 to 80 units a year.

"Most of the products we carry don't sell well enough for a company to specialize in them," Galen says. "But by having some of everything, we manage to stay in business."

Sometimes, he says, they'll carry a product just because they can't bear to have it disappear. When the last maker of the Reading apple peeler was getting ready to retire, Lehman's bought the pattern and had the peelers made themselves. "It's the only peeler that can handle 10 apples at a time," Galen says. "And its design has remained unchanged since 1858. We just couldn't stand to see it go. We sell about 500 a year."

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