Spec-tacular eyewear

An optical art center that can do gold frames while providing state-of-the-art professionalism

Heading north on Hennepin, Woody Allen’s likeness stares out from the mural on the side wall of Specs Optical, 2204 Hennepin Ave S.

Once inside, the store appears just as offbeat and quirky as Allen, with jazz-inspired art installations in the windows, magnifying-mirror madness in their bathroom and Jack, the storeowner’s Jack Russell Terrier, dressed in a "Wagwear" sweater.

The store layout and oval mirrors urge a child-like "dress-up" mentality, with more than 1,400 carefully selected frames — worth a quarter of a million dollars — on the shelves for customers to try on.

Linden Hills resident Liz Rockman strolled through Specs for the first time after hearing about it from friends and was impressed. "There are great frames — lots of shapes and colors," she said. "It looks like a Walker (Art Museum) exhibit."

Don’t be fooled by the store’s fun atmosphere; owners John Oliva and Nancy Krant are all about service from accredited professionals, the latest technology and pioneering new eyewear styles.

Policies to guarantee quality

Krant and Oliva, business partners and a couple, purchased Specs Optical in 1995, when it was located in the Kenwood Crossing shopping area a block south, and moved it to the current East Isles location in 1998.

Oliva, a New York native, works the front of the house and loves the role, dishing out good-natured quips and tips. He’s not just a performer, though; he spent 13 years in research at the drug conglomerate Pfizer and is a licensed optician. In New York, the state required optical-store workers to attend school, go through an apprenticeship and take a licensing exam.

In Minnesota, there’s no such requirement. "It’s too expensive to license people, so they don’t," he said. "That’s why people can’t see."

Oliva said Specs’ most essential policy is that all seven employees must be certified opticians or in the process of getting certified. (They are also noncommissioned, to ensure professional recommendations.)

Specs optician Jill Rhode has been with the company for nearly two year but previously managed Marshall Field’s optical department. She said she feels good about working at Specs because the certification policy helps her to be more efficient in her work.

Oliva also insists on high technology and an in-store lab, which includes state-of-the-art lens-perfecting machinery uncommon in many stores, that measures diagnostics such as light and ultraviolet ray penetration. He said UV light is very harmful to eyes, causing disease, so this technology is valuable for consumers.

While technology and staff training has a large impact on product quality, Specs’ exclusive, funky frames create the buzz.

Just us

Whether it’s a newly designed hinge created by German design students or indestructible Titanium frames, they have it. "But don’t you dare use the word ‘trendy,’" Oliva said.

Krant and Oliva travel to trade shows all over Europe a couple times a year to find the latest styles and frames that are premier in quality.

Oliva said not every enterprising business can afford the booths at these four-day trade shows (which can cost between $30,000 and $50,000), so the duo often go out of their way to seek vendors off-site to explore their new designs.

Specs further sets itself apart by insisting on vendor exclusivity, which helps minimize competition with chains such as LensCrafters and Pearl Vision, Oliva said.

He says that while many chain stores carry brand names such as Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, people mistakenly ascribe quality to the glasses. "(Common) brands are usually not the best quality — quality costs money," Oliva said, adding that the more of something that’s produced, usually the cheaper it’s done and it just comes with a designer stamp on it.

The quality and exclusivity Olivia describes can often be expensive. Spec’s is a high-end store — over the years, they have custom-made about a dozen pair of solid gold glasses for $2,200, and $500 for lenses is not unheard of. However, many frames in the $100 range and lower are on display.

That’s my vendor

One of Oliva’s vendors, Rick Nelson, vice president of Kansas City-based InCite International, produces a line called Bevel. He said he’s been a loyal exclusive Specs vendor since his company’s inception four years ago.

He said he sometimes consults them for design opinions because soon after they feature something in the store, it tends to gain popularity. "One and a half years later, they’ll be knock-offs of John’s product," Nelson said. "We’re always trying to be one step ahead. We’re the trendsetters."

Nelson said, through the years, many other stores in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area have approached him about carrying Bevel, but he’s turned them down. He said being exclusive is important because if you can get something everywhere, quality suffers and it loses mystique.

Nelson insisted the exclusivity arrangement hasn’t hurt his company’s productivity; quite the opposite. "In the Midwest, they’re our number one account," he said, out of 450 clients.

Nelson said in a world of chain stores, it’s important to support independent stores, like Krant and Oliva’s, who are becoming a "dying breed."

All endangered species should be so healthy. Oliva said since 1998, business has steadily grown 20 percent per year, though he would not disclose annual revenue.