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5/25/2003

Eye on tradition

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — After 30 years, The Optical Centre’s most effective form of advertising is still the old-fashioned kind.

“We’re ... not afraid to tell anybody, ‘Those glasses look bad; these look good,’” Jeff Lees said. “We don’t want people to say (to our customers), ‘Where’d you get your glasses? Because I’m not going there.’

“That’s how we get new people coming in here — word of mouth.”

Lees, the son of the founders of The Optical Centre, has had a hand in the family business for a long time.

“I painted this hallway in 1977,” Lees said, sitting in the back room of the shop’s current location at 521 Main St., only a couple of doors down from where his father, Don, and late mother, Roseann, started the business 30 years ago next month.

“What I can remember is since 12 years old, I’ve been around the business,” said Lees, the shop’s vice president and manager.

His father is still company president, though he has stepped back from the day-to-day operations of the store.

Remaining family-owned after 30 years is no small feat in these days of consolidation and large chains. Lees said he believes that part of The Optical Centre’s success is that it has managed to change with the times, even as Longmont has evolved from its agriculturally driven economy of three decades ago.

“I think why we’ve been successful — and this goes back to Dad, too, and Mom — is they always wanted to be cutting edge,” Lees said. “We’ve always wanted to get the newest and best. We’ve also always tried to think we’ve got something for everyone.”

And just as an attractive pair of eyeglasses can say a lot about your image, a positive image is necessary in the optometry business.

Lees said his store carries wrap-around, prescription sport glasses made by Oakley that are popular with the many outdoor enthusiasts in the Longmont area. It’s technology that didn’t even exist a few years ago, he said.

“Oakley’s perfected it, and we’re the only place in town you can get it,” he said.

Unfortunately, a family-owned store on Main Street — in Longmont or any other town — might have to fight an undeserved stodgy image, but Lees said it shouldn’t have to be that way.

“Since 1992, Longmont has just exploded, but our business has not paralleled the growth of the community,” he noted.

Karen Pond — described as The Optical Centre’s office manager, although she said, “All of us do everything” — agreed that convincing 20-somethings they can find the styles they want without having to visit a chain store can be a struggle.

“The young people don’t know you’re here,” said Pond. “(They think,) ‘I’m going to find hip things in Boulder; I’m not going to find hip things in Longmont.’”

But she said customers who come in once usually end up coming back.

“We have customers who go check out the two-for-one specials, but they always come back,” said Pond. “They go to those places, but they always come back.”

Lees said he never seriously considered leaving the downtown area and has been pleased to see stores such as Crackpots come in and help to revitalize the district.

“Between us, Ambassador Travel and Mike O’Shay’s, it’s a great little block,” he said. “It would be hard to leave downtown and chase the mall. ... Would we get more new people if we were parked across from the mall? I don’t know.”

“It’s kind of like living in a home for 30 years,” Pond added. “It’s kind of hard to uproot.”

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.