By Kristen Spina
Just about everything that has made them a success is the opposite of what you might think. They are not located on the hippest, coolest block. They get no walk-by traffic. They don’t carry any brands from the usual suspects. They don’t put it all out there on social media. And they pretty much only stock zyl frames—quirky, unique and colorful plastics in shapes that speak to a strong retro theme.
Yet for sisters Amy and Katie O’Connell, going their own way has been elevated to an art form. The two l.a.Eyeworks veterans are quick to point out that all the things that made their plan seemingly undesirable have, in fact, worked to their advantage. “This building— which is an old house—was hideous when we found it, but also dirt cheap,” says Katie. “A really creative friend of ours said, ‘You girls can tart that up,’ and we did.”
Working with their father (who is a contractor) the O’Connell sisters transformed the classic Los Angeles bungalow that sits across the street from the Sparklett’s Water distributor on a part residential/part commercial street in Highland Park into an optical showroom featuring flea market cabinetry and vintage displays. “We’re not fancy, even though we do carry fancy eyewear,” says Katie. “We wanted to create an environment that was woody and earthy, the opposite of that sterile minimalist look that so many optical shops have embraced.” And to that end, they scoured eBay and estate sales and swap meets to find old jewelry displays, a typesetter’s case and wooden cabinets to line the walls of what was once someone’s home. “This is one of the oldest areas in LA, and we wanted our store to reflect that, to somehow spark the imagination or touch a memory with collections of frames and trinkets that are both desirable and inspiring.”
The O’Connell sisters have curated an inventory of roughly 1,500 frames from a small group of independent eyewear designers. “Even though we are in a small space, our goal is always to offer our clientele choices,” says Katie, pointing to the eclectic mix of frames from the likes of l.a.Eyeworks, Paul Smith, Oliver Peoples, Salt Optics, Patty Paillette and Frances Klein of Paris. Tucked into corners of display cabinets are a collection of seashells and pottery crafted by a local artisan. Vintage photographs hang on the walls, and an eclectic array of knickknacks top tall cabinets and display cases.
“We use almost no visual marketing here because we believe it’s about our ability to educate people,” says Katie. “With the explosion of the small independents, the choices we have are phenomenal now. The only designer brand we have in store is Celine, but we loved the collection because it was so chunky, kind of an unusual blip.” Katie adds that listening to and respecting customers is key. “People shop here because they crave the story; they want to know about the artistry and the design and the materials used in the collections. They can’t get that when they order frames online.”
Another thing they can’t get online: the vibe. The sisters are charming and curious; they are genuinely excited to greet everyone who comes through the door. And their staff—three full-time and four part-time employees—are cut from the same cloth. There is an energy, a sense of joy and purpose that fills this small space. When Katie disappears briefly into the small finishing lab to put darker lenses in a pair of vintage frames for a new customer, another client and a member of the staff engage the room in conversation. The air on this warm summer morning is filled with compliments (“Those look great on you!”) and advice (“Try on the orange frames, they’re so cool!”). No one, it seems, is anxious to leave or be somewhere else. Right now, this is the spot. And it’s clear from the sense of ease, the friendly chitchat and the impeccable service, that somehow this magic mix works. Never mind that the room is small, the air is thick, and the dog next door is barking. When you are in the capable hands of Society of the Spectacle you want—no, you must—have what they’re having.
“You know what’s fun?” asks Amy. “Seeing someone at Trader Joe’s wearing the frames we sold them. Sure, it’s kind of cool when an actor or someone famous comes in, but it’s the real people out there who inspire us.”
Katie agrees. “There’s something about being in the store, in this environment that allows me to see how it all fits. I can get overly inspired by what’s out there, at a trade show, for example. But when I’m here, in the store, I can be more pragmatic. I connect with our customers, and I see exactly what we need. It’s local and it’s human.”■