By Melissa Arkin • Photographs By Bryson Leidich
dynamic dispensingWHOLocated off one of the main arteries of the small town of Mechanicsburg, Pa., Hampden Optical gets much of its business from passersby who are intrigued by the unique design of the store’s exterior. "People see the store from the road and are drawn to it," says owner Carmen Walker.
Mechanicsburg, Pa.AVERAGE PRICE OF A COMPLETE PAIR OF EYEWEAR
$350-$375 WEB SITE www.hampdenoptical.comNUMBER OF EMPLOYEES
Personalized service with a unique backdrop.
Yet the exterior of the store is only a sneak preview of the modern design scheme of the interior. The décor, which Walker describes as "very metropolitan," is host to black, silver and chrome displays. The waiting room has an overstuffed micro-fiber sofa. Bathed in lime green, pale yellow and beige, the space is filled with lots of windows and light. "It's nothing like a doctor’s office here," reassures Walker. "It's about feeling comfortable."
The urban, yet cozy, design of Hampden Optical has a unique story. The entire decorating was planned and executed by Hampden’s own Tura sales representative, Brian Stewart. “We felt that Central Pennsylvania needed an upscale optical boutique," says Walker. "Brian knew that we were moving and offered his help. He said it would be his way all the way and it was—he did the building of the displays and the window boxes, in addition to all of the purchasing of the accessories. Brian designed the whole showroom 100 percent. He has extreme talent."
Hampden Optical is not only upscale in its chic styling, but also in the personalized service offered. Walker and her staff develop a special rapport with customers. “You have to be a listener," she explains. “We laugh, we cry. We get very close to our customers.”
Perhaps this closeness can be attributed to what the web site boasts as Walker's 'female owned and operated" environment. (Of the six employees on staff, only one is male.) Propped up on a frame display is a comical cutout of a cartoon woman, polka dotted purse in one hand and a sign asking, "Do I look fat?" in the other. This brand of humor exemplifies the female camaraderie at Hampden Optical. "Our store is a winner with women. Women want to get honest opinions on how they look in their frames. We’re into making people look good. We emphasize how you can really accessorize your eyes with eyewear."
And it’s the frames themselves that further distinguish Hampden from an optical chain store. “We try to get brands that are unique,” Walker says. "Yes, we sell Dior and Gucci, but that isn't our main thing here. We carry the Takumi line and Manhattan, and the Ooh La La Paris we picked up from a Vision Expo show. We're a little funkier than your average store." And of course, Hampden carries a vast selection of Tura brands, such as Ted Baker and Lulu Guinness.
Carmen Walker is no newcomer to the optical business and the success of Hampden Optical isn't beginner's luck. Rather, the booming business in the store is the outcome of a series of experiences in the optical industry that reach back to the age of 16, when Walker worked parttime filing and answering the phone at a family friend's optical shop. That led to a gig managing an optical chain store, working in wholesale and eventually setting up a lab in her basement to allow her time to spend with her children when they were young.
Her past experience as a skilled lab technician has proved itself to be very useful at Hampden. With their own finishing lab, about 95 percent of the lens fitting is done on the premises. One of Walker's favorite things about working at an optical store is actually the technical work. "The art of fabricating a lens and fitting it to a frame is like an art form." she says.
The days of doing lab work out of her basement are long gone, but Carmen Walker still gets to spend quality time with her children. Her 19-year-old daughter, Jen, is the newest addition to Hampden Optical and is shaping up to be an integral part of business. She has been working part-time for several years and has proven to be influential on customer's decisions. "Jen's very honest with her opinion and people here appreciate that," says Walker. "When customers try on a frame, they tend to look at her for a reaction before they even look at themselves in the mirror. She’s a high-maintenance girl so she knows a lot about style. We love getting her take on the frames."
Carmen Walker is surrounded by family and friends at work. "It's funny how this started out as fun and I'm pleased to say that it is still fun," she says. "We are friends in addition to being coworkers." And while the fun continues for Walker and the staff at Hampden, business is steady. "We've noticed that the area right around here has become more congested since we’ve gotten more well-known." With Hampden Optical's winning combination of unique inventory, extraordinary design and honest opinions, the roads in Mechanicsburg are sure to be clogged for some time to come.