By Maryann LoRusso
Photographs by LISA FARRER
David Schwartz is crazy about jazz. Tucked away in the basement of his 20/20 Optical shop in San Rafael, Calif., just one floor below his polished showroom, is a small chamber containing two drum sets that once belonged to Rufus Speedy Jones, who played with Duke Ellington in the late 1960s. Schwartz himself is a drummer; for years he played regularly at a local nightclub and he continues to perform every six weeks or so. But alas, says the retailer, “time in the office keeps me from playing as much as I’d like.” This room, hidden in the depths of his busy store, serves as a reminder of his once unbridled musical passion.
These days, Schwartz’s first passion is creating and selling luxury eyewear. He pours most of his energy into his two optical shops in affluent Marin County, just north of San Francisco. He opened the first one in San Rafael in 1980, after relocating from New York and deciding there was a shortage of high-end optical stores in the Bay Area. He followed up four years later with a second location about 15 minutes north, in the slightly more rural town of Novato. Both stores feature a sleek interior, a vast assortment of designer frames and a savvy clientele. “Marin is known for its exclusivity,” says Schwartz, noting that his San Rafael customers are often athletic and sometimes trendy, while Novato patrons tend to prefer more classic styles.
But there’s no doubt that residents of both markets demand the best and Schwartz delivers. “I’m a frame-a-holic,” says the retailer, who stocks frames from a diverse range of international designers, including Gold & Wood, Face a Face, Oliver Peoples, Paul Smith, Anne et Valentin, Chrome Hearts, Theo, Judith Leiber, Robert Marc, l.a. Eyeworks, Alain Mikli, Starck, Betsey Johnson, Chanel, Francis Klein and Italee. “I look for the most eclectic, fashion-forward, cosmopolitan eyewear,” says Schwartz. “Our customers know that when they come in they can expect something unique.” Price points range from $185, all the way up to $3,000 or more for an 18- karat-gold, horn-rimmed frame by Lindberg. Sunwear represents 30 percent of inventory.
On a recent weekday, Schwartz gives a behind-the-scenes tour of the 1,800-squarefoot store, located on San Rafael’s bustling Fourth Street. Five years ago, he doubled the shop’s size after purchasing the jewelry boutique next store. This morning, a collection of bamboo-filled vases in the window sets a decidedly Zen tone. Past the optometrist’s office at the front of the store, the showroom is simultaneously minimalist and warm. It features custom walnut-finished cabinets with silver hardware, caramel-colored stone floors, soft overhead lighting and a bar where customers can peruse optical magazines, shop for accessories, watch a fashion slide show or indulge in a cappuccino.
Schwartz, who designed the showroom along with his wife Josette and a local interior designer, decided to put the product itself behind glass. “I treat the eyewear like jewelry, showing one frame at a time,” Schwartz says, explaining that an experienced eyewear professional can cherry-pick appropriate frames and suggest styles the customer may not have thought about.
Schwartz employs 11 staffers,, including six opticians, between the two locations. He says he looks for employees who have not only extensive industry knowledge, but also convivial personalities that enable them to connect with patrons. “Our goal is to make every customer’s experience personal,” Schwartz explains. Adds optician Judith Borowsky, “We take our time to help each person choose something optically perfect, comfortable and fashionable. Our job is to listen, listen, listen. We listen to the customer explain what they do for a living or how they spend their day. We note if they’re soft spoken or if they’re funny and extroverted. We try to give them something that fits their personality and lifestyle.”
Like a great jazz ensemble, the 20/20 team works together to appeal to their audience, improvising when necessary. Customers get the high-end service they expect and the staff does everything it can to fulfill special requests. In the past, they have delivered glasses to an elderly patient’s hospital bed. They’ve provided loaner lenses to people waiting for custom eyewear. They’ve researched special lenses for folks with unique hobbies, from motorcycling to pheasant hunting. “Whatever it is, we’ll make it happen,” says Diane Yioulos, another staffer. “David’s a miracle worker.”
So it’s no wonder 20/20 was voted Best Optical Shop several times by the readers of Pacific Sun magazine. And it’s no surprise that both locations get good walk-in traffic as well as steady repeat business. Although Schwartz doesn’t like to namedrop, the staff hints they’ve made glasses for members of the San Francisco Giants and other local professional teams; for Jon Miller, the “voice of the Giants;” and oh yes, for a blockbuster film director who lives in Marin.
Schwartz seems to take pride in the painstaking way he runs his business. As he leads a reporter to the office space behind the showroom, one can’t help but notice how neatly files and paperwork are organized. On the way downstairs, Schwartz bends to pick up a stray piece of litter on the floor. A few moments later, he shows off a storage room where he stacks boxes of old frames from the past three decades. Schwartz is far from a pack rat; the frames are kept just in case—and it’s been known to happen—a nostalgic or vintage-seeking customer is searching for an oldie but goodie.
Besides the drum room, to which Schwartz occasionally retreats for some musical therapy, the retailer’s favorite part of the store is his state-of-the-art optical laboratory upstairs. Several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of lens-cutting equipment allows the retailer to personally finish more than 95 percent of the orders from both stores, giving him control over not only quality, but also delivery times, with customers usually receiving their eyewear in less than three days. More important, the lab enables him to fabricate “the most precise and personalized eyewear possible,” says Schwartz. “We use the newest technology from vendors as soon as it’s available, so we can quickly combine the latest progressives in the thinnest, lightest materials with the most durable and easiest-to-care for antiglare or polarized lens treatments. So when a patient wants something unique for their needs, in a look that is also unique, we can marry the two.”
The retailer embraces the creative challenge of merging the fashion, medical and technological aspects of his business. Like the language of music, he says, “ophthalmic optics is a fascinating language all its own. It’s an art. It’s exciting to tackle each challenge as it arises.”
Schwartz works hard to keep himself and his team on top of their game. He holds regular staff meetings, encourages his team to attend local training seminars and continuing education classes, and retains a consultant, Mark Mattison-Shupnick, an optician, researcher, former lens manufacturer and 20/20’s very own director of education and training. Schwartz also pays close attention to emerging trends. For example, back with a vengeance are the 1980s Laura Biagiotti look, with larger frames and thinner temples; the classic round P3 silhouette; and bold plastic frames in square and rectangular shapes.
But down the road, Schwartz says, the most important trend will be personalization. As more consumers start to demand one-of-akind lenses matching their specific medical and fashion needs, he sees a “definite return to the freeform manufacturing method” that will enable opticians to deliver products that are completely outside the norm.
Spoken like a true jazz musician. Disciplined. Precise. Yet eager to break free and jam when the opportunity presents itself.