In 1946 Bob and Elmeda Calloway lived upstairs in the old Post Office building in West Knoxville with their two children. Downstairs they had a little shop called the Electronic Shop, where they re-coned speakers and changed the tubes in customers’ radios. That little shop was the beginning of today’s Calloway’s. In 1952 they built a small building at 5714 Kingston Pike (the current location), and moved the store.
When Paul Ledbetter was a teenager in the late 1960s he frequented Calloway’s, where he purchased parts from Bob and Elmeda for craft projects, and he formed a friendship with the family. Paul graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1972 as an AFROTC second lieutenant, finished pilot training in 1974, and volunteered for a Southeast Asia assignment as a C-130 pilot. He was stationed overseas at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. In his travels to all the countries of Southeast Asia he saw beautiful and interesting items in use or for sale that, having grown up a North Knoxville boy in Fountain City, he had never seen before. “It was then I began mulling over the idea of opening a retail business for Knoxville, stocked with these elegant and unusual objects that I would bring back from abroad,” Paul says. “I decided to give it a shot.”
In 1977 Paul opened his store, the Exception, in a little house on the current site of Nixon’s Deli, right next door to Calloway’s. Paul easily renewed his friendship with Bob and Elmeda, as his Exception customers frequently would take imported candlesticks and vases purchased from Paul next door to Calloway’s to be made into lamps. At this point, Mr. Calloway was 64 years old and thinking of retiring. With Paul’s ability to make lamps and his keen interest in the business, the Calloways decided that young Paul would be a good candidate to retire their store to.
When Paul took over Calloway’s in 1978, the store measured only about 900 square feet and was largely a repair shop with a small selection of lampshades hidden in the back. Paul removed the walls, painted the store bright colors, and brought the shades up front, adding a table with electricity to show off and try on replacement shades. In addition to the lighting repair and lampshade business, Paul added his exotic purchases from travels in Europe and Asia, expanding the trade.
Four years later Paul opened Calloway’s North in the Hills Shopping Center on Broadway. Even though it was 2,500 square feet, the store fizzled, so he closed Calloway’s North and focused his efforts on expanding the 5714 Kingston Pike location. In 1984 he added 4,200 square feet to the existing building, thereby creating a manageable space of more than 5,000 square feet to house the repair business and the lampshade stock as well as his home furnishings and decorative accessories. Later, he recalls, “I decided that I really wanted Calloway’s to be known for unique lampshades and an interactive lamp-shading experience, where the customer brings in a lamp and we help him or her find the perfect shade. Today that’s what we’re still known for.”
Paul’s son, Rod Ledbetter, was raised in the business. Rod recalls that during his stint as a student at Bearden Elementary, “I would walk across the street after school to be put to work sweeping the parking lot!” He began building lamps and doing repairs for the family at age 13, and his passion for lighting developed quickly. He started managing Calloway’s just out of high school and has been driving the company since, with the exception of a hiatus to serve as a US Marine combat engineer in Afghanistan. Rod formally took over the business in 2014. He has maintained the core business emphasis on both a huge stock of traditional and contemporary American-made lampshades, and repairing, restoring, and building lighting. Rod has an affection for regional and artisan-made lighting as well as antique restoration.
The Ledbetter family has now owned and operated Calloway’s longer than Bob and Elmeda Calloway did. In some ways, the business is different from what Paul conceived: A lot of the vases and candlesticks he thought he would sell as accessories he ended up making into lamps that grace homes all over the South. And over the years the business has blossomed in ways that Bob and Elmeda might never have dreamed of but would definitely appreciate. “And,” says Rod, “it is still the little local repair shop Mr. Calloway started in 1946 — where you know the person helping you, and you can depend on us to do the job right.”