By Kristen Spina
As you drive into San Luis Obispo (SLO!)—regardless of where you are coming from—one of the first things you might notice is the way the air suddenly turns warm and dry, the light gold. If you happen to catch it on a day when the fog is creeping over the Pacific, blanketing the nearby beach towns in a wet, misty gloom, you’ll sense the sudden change as you follow the highway inland, turning away from the coastal communities toward this brightly-colored jewel in the Central Coast crown. To those who live here, San Luis Obispo is like a secret they simultaneously want to keep and to tell. Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and home to the increasingly competitive and elite California Polytechnic State University, this once sleepy little college town is now a bustling, thriving city in its own right.
While its location and beauty have long made San Luis a favorite destination for those in on the secret, it hasn’t always been the kind of place where people could find good jobs or where businesses could prosper. In fact, when Dave Schultz (Dr. Dave, as he likes to be called) opened the doors to Urban Optics in 1990, San Luis was just waking up to the idea of multiplexes, big-box stores and hotel chains. Back then, if you wanted to buy something fashionable or chic, or dine in a four-star restaurant, you had to drive about an hour and a half south to Santa Barbara.
Today, it would be hard to imagine a more ideal location for an upscale optical shop. Tucked into a busy downtown corner, next door to a ridiculously popular eatery, two miles from campus and just about five miles from the nearest beach, Urban Optics seems to have mastered the mantra “location, location, location.” “The first five years we were three blocks away on Marsh,” explains Dr. Dave. “We only had 600 square feet, which we quickly outgrew. At the time, there wasn’t much happening in town in terms of retail, so when this space opened up, we saw tremendous potential.”
The building’s stark white exterior, which maintains a few of the architectural details of the Firestone tire shop that once anchored this corner, stands in contrast to the warm decor inside. Walls of windows flood the waiting area with light, where wood mixes with metal to create a modern, approachable backdrop for the independent optical brands lining the shelves and display cases.
Dr. Dave has been a longtime supporter of independent eyewear companies. “Two things: We wanted to offer something different than what people were used to seeing in this town, so we ended up being more aggressive with our fashion offerings than the community at large. Also, I value my relationships with vendors. Being able to pick up the phone and speak with the designer or the owner of the company is important,” says Dr. Dave. “We opened cold with Alain Mikli and l.a. Eyeworks, and we stuck with those independent roots, adding lines as we grew.”
“It’s hard yards being an independent retailer,” says Todd Rogers, founder and chief creative officer of Todd Rogers Eyewear. “As you open those doors for the first time, introducing collections no one has heard of, you can only hope the exam book will fill. But Dr. Dave gets it and takes it to another level. He understands the relationship between vendor and retailer, he respects the effort and the hard work behind what we do, and he treats us as family, friends and business confidants. He makes me want to be a better designer and a better person. It’s a win-win.”
Urban Optics currently carries 15 to 20 collections including Todd Rogers, Garrett Leight California Optical, Salt. Optics, Kuboraum, Blake Kuwahara and Komono. In March, Dr. Dave added Yuichi Toyama, a collection of vintage looking titanium frames, to the mix because he felt the timing was right for an alternative to zyl. “Our inventory turns over about two times a year,” he adds. “We keep about 900 frames on display, usually 35 to 50 from each collection, but sometimes as many as 85 to 100. The average sale for a complete pair, single vision, is roughly $450, but we start at $200 and max out at $750.”
Catering to a clientele of college students, professors and young professionals, Urban Optics is more than an optical shop—it’s a social experiment. While many opticians bank on traditional trunk shows to promote sales and increase revenue, Dr. Dave prefers to party. “We throw epic parties,” he says. “We usually have a theme—the most recent was Tacos, Tequila and Tecate—and bring in a caterer and a DJ. If we feature a vendor, we invite them and display only their frames throughout the shop. But the goal really isn’t to sell anything. It’s just a theme party, a chance to build community and have fun.” Over 5,400 e-mail invites were sent out for the most recent bash.
Urban Optics also maximizes its exposure through social media. The shop’s Instagram and Facebook feeds are updated frequently, often featuring photos of customers in their new eyewear, along with fun and interesting posts that tie back to optical or the San Luis Obispo area. But the Internet can be a mixed blessing. In fact, Dr. Dave says one of the challenges he sees moving forward is the looming threat of online sales. “On the one hand, the beauty of carrying independent lines is that they are really hard to price shop online, and they aren’t found in discount arenas. To appreciate the quality and the workmanship, you have to hold them and try them on. Sticking to the independents kind of insulates us from the pressure, but it’s something we have to keep an eye on. Stay aware.”
And Urban Optics is nothing if not aware. The shop was recently recognized by the local New Times, for Best Eyewear Store and for Best Customer Service in San Luis Obispo County. The list of accolades—for the shop and for Dr. Dave—is long. “We’ve put a lot of work into this,” he says. “We have our niche, and it serves us well.”
• Follow Dr. Dave’s lead and wear shorts 365 days a year. The weather really is that beautiful, the town really is that casual.
• Brave the long lunch lines and order a tri-tip sandwich from the Firestone Grill (right next door to Urban Optics!).
• Visit the tide pools or walk the cliff path at Montaña de Oro State Park.
• Shop for antiques (or vintage eyeglass frames!) in nearby Cambria.
• Pick up an olallieberry pie at the Avila Valley Barn or a jar of olallieberry jam at the Cal Poly store.
• Rent kayaks in Morro Bay or take surfing lessons at Avila Beach.
• Go wine tasting along scenic Route 46 between Cambria and Paso Robles.
• Bring home a Steve Thomas print of a vintage Central Coast travel poster from the Just Looking Gallery downtown.
• Tour the men’s room at the Madonna Inn. Sounds wrong, but you’ll have to trust us.
• Hike up Poly Canyon Road, past the Architectural Design Village behind the university, to the Serenity Swing. The view is worth the climb.