Features: Retailing

Mar
2007

Right On Track


PHOTOGRAPHS BY MIKE TAMBORINO

 One of New York’s most famous landmarks, Grand Central Terminal is a bustling, frenetic locale in midtown Manhattan. Scott Stein, licensed optician and owner of Grand Central Optical, knows well the daily ebbs and flows of traffic in the fast paced historic train station. “Most of my customers are commuters,” says Stein. “They don’t have a lot of time to spare, so they come in knowing what they want and we help them as quickly and efficiently as we can.”

Stein’s optical business is shaped by the hours of the work force—many of the customers stopping into Grand Central Optical are business people from the surrounding office buildings. “We get a rush of business in the morning, in the evening and at lunch time,” says Stein. “To accommodate their hours we open at eight in the morning and close at eight at night. People are coming in for quick repairs all day long.”

Scott Stein is not the first in his family to grow accustomed to the daily pulse of Grand Central. His family legacy within the historic railroad hub began two generations ago when his maternal grandfather, Samuel Kamarow, opened up a jewelry store in 1923. His father, Milton Stein, assisted his father-in-law in the store in the late 1940s and worked there until his business-minded instinct told him optical would be a more lucrative business. “My father noticed that whenever he passed by an optical shop there were people waiting on line. He thought if a business was busy enough to keep people waiting it was a good business to get into.” In 1964, he opened Grand Central Optical.

Like his father, Scott Stein wasn’t always set on entering the optical business. He received his undergraduate degree in accounting from The State University of New York at Oswego. It wasn’t until after graduating that he decided to get his optician’s license from New York Institute of Technology. “My father welcomed, but did not push me, into the optical industry,” he says.

Judging from the devoted clientele of the store today, Milton Stein was smart to heed his hunch about the optical business and son Scott was smart to follow in his footsteps. Scott Stein sees many regulars in his store that have been coming in for years. “It’s because of our strong following that we were never hurt by recessions,” he says. “Since people have been here five, 10 times there’s a high level of trust. Because of that trust, people are more comfortable spending money on high-quality items, like lenses.” Frame collections from Tom Ford and Lafont adorn the storefront window and in-store display cases.

Because of the support of Stein’s regular customers, Grand Central Optical survived during what could have been a tumultuous period—the large-scale renovation of Grand Central Terminal. In 1996, a construction project was to begin on the terminal and the stores needed to relocate. “On three days’ notice we moved everything to a tent in Vanderbilt Hall (the central vestibule of the terminal), we moved our displays, got a telephone line wired there and made a makeshift exam room,” Stein explains. Over the course of two years, Stein’s store was moved three times. However, despite the constant changes, business remained solid and many devoted customers followed him from one location to another. “Throughout the whole period of renovations, I didn’t close the doors for one minute.”

The constant shuffling around did not hurt Stein’s business and, in fact, ultimately expanded it. The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority helped the optician find each new location. “The MTA was a great landlord. If you wanted to come back to Grand Central Terminal once the renovations were done, they would help you out.” After a third move, Grand Central Optical found itself on Madison Avenue, a few blocks away from its original location. When the construction wrapped up in October 1998, Stein decided to keep the Madison Avenue location in addition to reopening in the terminal.

Having a store in plain view of so many passersby has proved helpful for a new philanthropic project the dispensary began several months ago. In the storefront window sits a donation basket for eyewear that is donated to Lions Clubs International, a charity organization geared toward ending preventable blindness. “So many people have spare pairs they don’t use that if everyone gives a little bit it makes a huge difference. Within the first six months alone, we reached our goal of 10,000 pairs of donated eyeglasses,” notes Stein.

Grand Central Optical today is a lot like the store that Milton Stein opened, but even stronger. “When the store started out it was largely for inexpensive economy frames, while now we carry midto- high range frames from major eyewear brands and boutique lines,” says Stein. But while some variables have changed, some important elements have remained the same. “The idea of service and quality has been consistent since 1964—that’s a part of Grand Central Optical that’s here to stay.” And it seems, so is Grand Central Optical.

 

 

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