Retail Strategies: Retail Design


Who's On Second

Who’s on Second?

Iware blurs the line between
optical shop and art gallery

by Kristen Spina

Before and after. (Clockwise from left): Eyewear gets Zen in a sand and rock garden; the site for Iware on Second used to house a drug store; the transformed space incorporates the works of local artists for a true gallery feel;  owner Kevin Cunningham designed and built all the displays.

When Kevin Cunningham expressed interest in 1,850 square feet of rundown space that for countless years had been a pharmacy—and not a very interesting one at that—his family and friends thought he was “completely insane.”
While the location was nearly ideal, the interior was not even close. “We got a very large dumpster and we tore out much of the ceiling and floor,” says the 26-year optical industry veteran. “I did the renovations with the help of my brother-in-law, who built an angled interior wall. Then we had a few painting parties and brought someone in to lay the carpet.”

Oh, yeah. He also designed and built all the displays.

Located in what Cunningham calls the “Village of Minneapolis,” Iware on Second pays homage to the artists who are among its nearest neighbors by blurring the line between optical shop and art gallery. In fact, a close look at the “before” and “after” shots of the store’s interior reveals a design scheme that is anchored by local art and creative display techniques.

Opened in January 1998, Iware on Second sits in the middle of a thriving community where small entrepreneurs, artists and galleries mingle with smart restaurants and unique shops. The unassuming red brick building is owned and run by local artist Frank Stone, whose gallery is directly connected to Iware on Second, allowing patrons and patients to move freely from one space to the other. Cunningham and building/gallery owner Stone have also combined their mailing lists, bringing a unique mix of people into both businesses. And, in an effort to become an integral part of the neighborhood, Cunningham has leased 350 square feet in the back of his store to a hairdresser. “It’s a great marriage,” he says. “The salon patrons use my entrance and peruse the latest in frame designs.”

With a clientele that includes a mix of young professionals in addition to local artists, Iware on Second stocks a wide range of high-end frame brands. Kawasaki, LaFont and Mikado are among the 800 frames on display, all of which range in price from $185 to $450. Cunningham does all the lab work himself and though he typically refers patients to two local doctors, he hopes to have someone running his own exam room in the near future. “We don’t have a doctor on staff right now, we’re still searching for the right one,” he explains.

In addition to the brand-name frames on display, Cunningham sells a collection of hand-carved frames that he designs himself. “This is a great way to set us apart from what other optical shops in the area are carrying… and it’s kind of under my skin right now. It’s something I really enjoy doing and I hope I can expand on it in the future,” he says. “It’s like giving birth, watching your two-dimensional drawings go through the whole process to become a three-dimensional frame you hold in your hands.”

To create the ideal backdrop for his inventory, Cunningham decided that there would be nothing standard about his interior space. “I have always had the phrase: ‘presentation is everything’ rolling around in my brain,” he says. “So I spent a lot of time trying to create the most unique way to display a frame.”

Working with neighborhood design and graphic artists, Cunningham has fostered a warm and eclectic environment—one that not only uses the space efficiently, but also carries an element of fun. For example, one entire wall is covered with a map of the Twin Cities. Map pins show the actual houses of many of Cunningham’s customers.

Large front windows feature a pebble garden and handcrafted display boxes. Nearby, a smiling alligator table holds plants and magazines. In the center of the store is an eight-foot-by-four-foot sand and rock Zen garden with flat file drawers underneath to hold well over 200 frames. Incorporated into many of his display areas are the works of local artists. In addition to allowing these artists to show their “sellables” on a rotating basis, Cunningham hosts a large open house in the spring and the fall. These open houses help to celebrate the opening of new shows at the Frank Stone Gallery and because the gallery and the optical shop open into each other, the free flow of people has benefited both businesses.

Iware on Second owes much of its success to its satisfied customers—many of who are willing to wait however long it takes to get a perfect fit. In the age of one-hour photo and prescriptions-filled-while-you-wait, Cunningham educates his customers on the benefit of taking the time to do the job right. “Speed is not everything,” he says. Not surprisingly, Iware on Second finds most of its new customers through word-of-mouth advertising. With its clever take on color and light, and creative display, this is one optical shop worth looking into.