Retail Strategies: Retail Design


Back to the Future

Old school service and art deco style

By Kristen Spina

Everything about it speaks of another time—a time swept away by the fast-paced pitch and contemporary aesthetic of the 21st century. In fact, stepping into Byers Optical Service on South Kansas Avenue in Topeka, Kan. is like stepping back in time.

It’s not just the authentic art deco interior, but also the old-school approach to service and selection employed by optician/ owner James Bloomar that makes this optical shop so unique. Bloomar purchased the business (which includes a second store in the Fairlawn Shopping Plaza on the West Side of Topeka) in 1978, moving the downtown flagship store into its current landmark location in 1986.

1. and 2.. Byers Optical in Topeka, Kan. has an authentic art deco interior including a beveled mirror ceiling, solid brass fixtures and hand-carved paneling in three shades of walnut; 3. Byers’ flagship store moved to its current landmark location in 1986; 4. Two original Queen Anne style chairs flank a brass inlay of a woman running with a Greyhound; 5. The building was built in 1904 and remodeled in classic art deco style in 1947; 6. Owner/optician James Bloomar places service on a high plane.

In many ways, Bloomar’s story is in stark contrast to so much of what has defined optical retailing in recent years. Specializing in hard to fill prescriptions and difficult to find frame styles, Bloomar admits that he often will use his skills as a soderer to repair an old pair of frames rather than trying to sell the customer a new pair. It’s this throwback to a time when fixing things was valued over buying new that places service at Byers Optical on a higher plane
“We bought an old business and our clientele in this downtown location has been an older clientele,” Bloomar explains. “They feel confident in what we do.” Bloomar takes a number of continuing education classes to refine his skills and increase his knowledge. He also keeps a surprisingly diverse inventory of 700 frames on hand (in each location) for all ages, including a wide range of classic, sometimes difficult to find styles like the universal Cambridge—a small metal frame that has been popular with men for more than 50 years.

“I want our customers to feel comfortable in the store, so we don’t give our sales staff commission. There is no pressure here to sell. If we don’t have something that fits properly or meets the customers needs, we won’t make the sale,” he says. Byers Optical Service has yearly sales of approximately $150,000 in each of its two locations—a figure that includes a substantial number of low dollar sales and repairs. However, according to Bloomar, operating overhead in each location—particularly the downtown store—is low, so “we can operate with a lower sales volume” than might otherwise be expected. In addition, Bloomar participates in the Medicaid program. “I know I’m not going to get rich doing that, but it’s the right thing to do so we do it.” Frames are purchased through the Vision West buying group in California, an arrangement that has worked out well for Bloomar giving him the welcome advantage of group discounts from vendors.

Bloomar stocks frames from a wide range of sources, including Tura, Sàfilo, Marchon and Marcolin, but expresses a strong commitment to both the designer and house brands of Luxottica. “I have a little bit of everything, but the only thing I have a lot of is Luxottica,” he says. “Even though there is a LensCrafters nearby, there still isn’t a lot of Luxottica on display in this city and I think that is a mistake because it’s a good product. As long as I can sell Luxottica and make a good profit and not get beat by them on price, I’ll be okay.”

Contributing to that low overhead is a staff of just four, including Bloomar. A part-time employee who is studying to be an optometrist works with Bloomar in the downtown location; a full-time manager handles the Fairlawn location where Bloomar’s wife also works part-time. And while he recently purchased a lane of equipment, he has not yet found an optometrist to join the business. “I know having an optometrist will increase our sales volume quite a bit—that’s what it’s all about today,” he says.

The most visually arresting aspect of Byers Optical Service is the unique—and somewhat surprising—look to the interior of the downtown store. Built in 1904, the historic building at 913 Kansas Avenue, just one block from the state capital, was purchased by Bloomar and his wife in the late 1980s. Formerly home to a shoe store, the building was remodeled in the classic art deco style in 1947 by master craftsmen and lovingly and painstakingly maintained by its owners through the years. “I’d always kept an eye on this building, hoping that it would become available,” says Bloomar, who prior to moving here ran Byers Optical Service from a location just down the block. “When I heard it was available I called the landlord and it seems like it all happened in a matter of minutes. We took a lease in 1986 and then bought the building two years later.”

Bloomar claims it wasn’t difficult to move an optical shop into a space created to sell shoes—primarily because the design and workmanship of the built-in displays, beveled mirrors, brass fixtures and marble floor created a sophisticated backdrop to the eyewear. “The only problem we had to deal with was the really large front display windows. It’s difficult to display small frames in such large windows without everything getting lost.” Bloomar solved the problem by visually downsizing the windows with a fountain and large artificial trees on one side and the work of a local artist on the other.

The only major renovation Bloomar made was to enclose the 20 by 20 exterior entry, creating instead a second foyer. He also repainted the interior in two shades of pink to coordinate with the existing carpet. The classic deco look includes an inlaid floor of brass and slate, inch-thick glass doors, curved glass display windows, a 30-foot-by-12-foot beveled mirror ceiling, solid brass fixtures, hand-carved paneling in three shades of walnut, ebony trim, custom-made display racks and a marble entry. At one time prior to Bloomar’s ownership, the shop boasted three signed Tiffany lamps, created by the designer when he was in Topeka designing stained glass windows for a nearby church. Bloomar does, however, continue to use the original Queen Anne style armchairs built in the building’s basement over 50 years ago.

With a total of 2,500 square feet, 1,500 of which is devoted to showcasing and dispensing frames, Byers Optical Service in downtown Topeka is a rare example of old world charm and refinement. Emphasizing service at all costs, this optical shop—and its 875-square-foot sister location in a mall across town—is clearly holding its own in an increasingly competitive environment.