It was the neighborhood’s synergy that enticed Michael McConnell and Corey Van Duinen to open Sight Optical Boutique
at 924-C Cherry St. SE in the East Hills Business District last March.
“We chose East Hills because it has a good, independent vibe,” says McConnell, 40. “It’s amazing -- 10 years ago, there was nothing here. Now there are independent retailers, good food and great art. We excited to be a part of it.”
The feeling appears to be mutual. It is not uncommon for McConnell to hear customers say, “Grand Rapids really needed this,” or, “This store is on-par with the shops we have in Chicago.”
The compliments are well deserved. The 1700-square-foot space is a celebration of creativity and design. Van Duinen, who builds displays for optical stores, conceived the modern, industrial design and fixtures. You’ve heard Van Duinen’s name before -- his collaborative team won second place in ArtPrize 2009 for the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum mural, “Imagine That.”
Add to fabulous space design McConnell’s finesse in finding frames and forging friendships, and you have a dynamic fashion spot to be reckoned with. Most every frame is unique to the boutique, which focuses on small, independent brands. The boutique boasts an amazing array of styles and colors -- about 800 finely crafted frames for women and men by more than a dozen brands that you won’t find at optical chain shops or department stores. Frame prices start at around $160.
McConnell travels to New York, Las Vegas, Europe and other locales to handpick each frame. Vintage lovers, take note: He recently discovered a treasure trove of mint-condition 1950s frames, snug in their original cases, in a San Francisco optician’s office. Yes, we’re talking Mad Men style here. Dibs on the ones with rhinestones.
This business is personal. McConnell’s decades of experience at all levels of the supply chain have formed valued relationships. He knows all the ins and outs of the business and has dealt with the best retailers from coast to coast.
“Our inventory is from companies I know, from designers and owners with whom I have a rapport,” he says. “When I sell a frame, it’s not just a frame. I’m selling something a friend made.”
But frames are only part of the business. Ocular health comprises a large facet of Sight Optical, and optometrist Sarah Weeks is available three days a week (by appointment) for eye exams.
Store manager and optician, the vibrant Marcie VanEss, is adept at helping people find the frame that’s right for them. “We’re not here to just sell frames,” McConnell says. “We don’t take the easy way out. We spend time with our customers and help them choose the most flattering frames. We are good at helping people find frames that are best suited for their personalities and physical features. We’ll even make suggestions for frame colors and shapes that the customer may not have thought of.” Of course, the customer has the final word, but it helps to be open to options.
The frame collection itself is a visual treat, and half the fun is listening to McConnell describe the various brands. Salt
, out of Southern California, is “a true American brand. The frames are kind of fun, wearable vintage, but friendlier,” says McConnell.
Missouri-based Bevel is one of the hottest brands. When looking at these frames, McConnell “sees” his craftsman friend, Richie. Then there is MYKITA
out of Berlin, Germany with a more techie style. “Industrial design students were charged with the challenge of creating a frame without screws or solder points,” McConnell says. Mission accomplished. The extremely lightweight frames are popular with singers Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and wil.i.am.
LaFont, out of France, offers colorful and unique frames. McConnell is the only U.S. distributor for another line called the Hamburg Collection. And then there is the Grotesque
line. “The German designer, Daniel, is way out there,” says McConnell. The evidence bears this out: There are glow-in-the-dark frames, and then there are some frames that literally defy description and must be seen to be believed and appreciated. Here are a few hints: Hot pink, zigzag cutouts and the illusion of dripping paint.
France is fabulous in the fall, but McConnell may have to skip his buying trip this year. He’ll be busy calling in favors from optical companies and people he knows to launch “Giving Sight,” a quest to outfit 50 kids from the Grand Rapids Public Schools with eyeglasses. Each child will get an eye exam, frames and lenses at no cost.
Sight Optical’s hours are Tues., Wed., and Fri. 10-5; Thurs. 10-8; and Sat. 10-3. Watch for Sunday hours, coming soon. They’re closed Mondays. Hey, give the guy a break. He deserves at least one day off.
Victoria Mullen is (in alphabetical order) an actress, artist, attorney, photographer and writer based in Grand Rapids. She is originally from Milwaukee.