Clairmont Nichols Opticians had just opened its doors on a recent Monday and already the green-carpeted, airy flagship store in Midtown East was full of customers. Some were in to pick up their glasses, assembled in the back laboratory, while others needed to get their frames adjusted. As the phone continually rang (and was answered, until it rang again), four opticians tended to customers at cherry wood desks. Beulah Clarke, a 30-year employee, used a soft cloth to clean the hundreds of glasses on display.
Opticians took turns at a stately marble reception desk near the front of the store to call customers about orders or appointments.Scott F. Malsin, center, runs and owns the business with his father, Lloyd.CreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times
In the days of Warby Parker modernity and ordering contacts online with little human interaction, this scene almost looks like it’s out of a period movie.
Nicholas de Liagre, who lives nearby, walked over to the desk where the co-owner and optician Scott F. Malsin, 30, was sitting. Somewhat distressed, Mr. de Liagre relayed the story of how he accidentally sat on his glasses. “I wish I could blame somebody else for the fact that they’re bent, but I can’t,” he said.Prescriptions.CreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times
“Don’t worry — they’re very easy to fix,” Mr. Malsin assured him, before heading to the back lab with the frames. Five minutes later, he re-emerged with the glasses. “These fit perfectly,” Mr. de Liagre said.
The fix was on the house. Clairmont Nichols patrons, even first-timers, generally aren’t charged for repairs or cleanings.In 1980, Lloyd A. Malsin, right, whose father, Mac, was already working at Clairmont Nichols as an optician, bought the business.CreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times
“I come here because the customer service is impeccable, and they have integrity,” said Mr. de Liagre, who has been a regular for 20 years.
The business has been around and thriving since 1885, when it was started by two optometrists, Clairmont and Nichols (their full names are a mystery, as is the original location). The store moved around Manhattan several times before landing at its current address, 1016 First Avenue, in the early 1960s. Here, three businessmen with no knowledge of eye care bought the enterprise and hired an optician, Mac Malsin, Mr. Malsin’s grandfather, to run the show.A tool used for shaping eyeglass lenses.CreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times
At the time, Mac’s son and Scott’s father, Lloyd A. Malsin, was working with a group of eye surgeons, but by 1980, he had saved up enough money to buy Clairmont Nichols from the three men.
Today, Lloyd, who is now 61, and Scott Malsin own and oversee the business, and although they have two smaller locations, on Madison Avenue and in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., they’re both based at First Avenue.“When it comes to any of my eyeglass needs, this is the only place,” one customer said. But “I also come whenever I need cheering up.”CreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times
The flagship store also sells binoculars and telescopes, which is a remnant from an earlier era. Though this part of the business has grown smaller over the years, Scott said that some shoppers still request telescopes for their apartments or binoculars if they are going on a safari.
Helping whoever enters the store, even if the person is not buying, is an ingrained part of the work ethic here.
“We can have 10 interactions in a row that are not revenue generating,” Scott said. “Nobody works on commission.”
As a tourist was leaving who had been given a replacement contact lens case after losing one, Babette Sommer, of Forest Hills, Queens, entered. She was greeted with a chorus of hellos from the staff.
“When it comes to any of my eyeglass needs, this is the only place,” Ms. Sommer, a customer of four years, said. But it seemed as if she mostly wanted to chat, sharing the stories of her stressful kitchen repairs and the tooth she had recently lost. She visits regularly, she said, for eyeglass adjustments and other needs. But “I also come whenever I need cheering up.”
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