Recently I was in Oklahoma City and discovered a fantastic optical store in the same middle-of-seeming-nowhere shopping center as Matthew Kenney’s raw restaurant (where everything I consumed never reached a heat in excess of 105 degrees). I went into this store to see if by any remote chance they might have a pair of Dries van Noten sunglasses by Linda Farrow from several (undetermined) seasons ago. I had seen these glasses on Farfetch.com …ordered them from a boutique in Paris — only to be told they had been sold. Anyway, the guy behind the counter of Black Optical was incredibly accommodating with my very farfetched request. But, aside from the fact that he doesn’t carry Linda Farrow anything… this guy completely knew his frames. And he liked (almost) everything I liked. We had a great conversation and I left with an eyeglass case of their own (Black Optical’s) design.
Every time I pull my glasses out of my purse, I am reminded of my encounter with this great store and just how much I like the design of this case. I decided to share it with you… So I called the owner and founder of Black Optical, Gary Black, to find out more about this case. I caught up with him in the original Tulsa store, right where he feels the most comfortable…on the selling floor. By the time I finished talking to Gary, I realized the case was truly only an accessory to the real story…
KR: How did you get involved in eye glasses?
GB: I worked at Sunglass Hut for eleven years .. right after high school. I had no dreams of working in retail. But I moved up the ranks and spent the final five years there working in retail development …working on the shops within a shop like in Macys etc.
KR: Wow! And you just went right from working at Sunglass Hut to owning two stunning retail operations of your own? How did you get the money together to fit out an optical store and stock it with eyeglass frames that average well over $300?
GB: I did what everyone recommends you not do. I sold my 401K and cashed in all my vacation pay (six weeks) from Sunglass Hut.. and then got a small loan.
KR: And from there?
GB: We broke even the first month we opened.
GB: I had built a very loyal client list from Sunglass Hut and they all came to Black Optical.
KR: I am thinking of our local Sunglass Hut where people go because it’s right in front of them and they remember they lost their sunglasses.. more impulse than wanting to go get “fit” for a pair of glasses. …And I can’t really picture those guys who work there establishing a loyal clientele, much less even having a knowledge of the merchandise.
GB: I worked really hard to get to know my customers and to get them to want to come back. I treated it like a boutique. Employees at the Tulsa Sunglass Hut stayed on average much longer in the job than at any other location and when I left to open Black Optical, the annual sales fell 300k there the first year. When I opened Black Optical I knew i wanted to create the place that I would like to shop in, where people get great service and where I stock only what I really like.
KR: Tell me a bit about the glass case I bought. What was the inspiration behind that?
GB: My wife struggled with putting those huge sunglass cases in her purse and so ended up just throwing the glasses in without the case and they were getting scratched. And I know my glasses were always falling out of my pocket when I bent over to pick up the kids. I like heritage design products and I knew I had seen something similar to these cases somewhere… either in a photo or maybe among our family’s things. My dad drove motorcycles and I loved the saddle bags he had and the simplicity of the stitching and shape. It took two years to develop these cases — trying to find the right fabrication and production… which we finally did using Makr Carry Goods out of Florida.
KR: Any plans for more Black Opticals… or products?
GB: I’ve thought about doing our own line of glasses, but truthfully, there are such great ones out there that I don’t think we could do it better. But down the road I would like to open Black Opticals in high end resort hotels. Those stores have such outdated merchandise. They sell four-season’s-old Prada glasses at current retail prices.. and people buy them because they’re on vacation and they’re spending money. How great would it be for people to have access to really new and quality frames?!
When I wrapped up our conversation, Gary added that if I had a picture of the glasses I had tried to buy from Farfetch, he would be happy to source them for me from Linda Farrow. Gary had just earned another Black Optical fan!