As a teenager in the late 1950s, New Albany native Charles Oliver considered his career options and found that he liked no business better than the family business: making and selling eyeglasses.
After a five-year optician apprenticeship in Kentucky, Oliver returned to New Albany to join the family optical operation.
He was hired by the family specifically to open a Columbus store the Monday after Thanksgiving in 1964. He lived in the back of the store from November 1964 to March 1965. His wife, Walburga, pregnant with their son, John, stayed in New Albany with his mother.
Columbus Optical, at Eighth and Washington streets, had a steady flow of customers, and four years later, he decided to buy the business.
He and his wife had $35 in their checking account, Oliver said, but his family sold them the business on contract. Though the couple struggled like any small-business operators, Columbus Optical provided enough of a margin to pay the bills.
In 2014, Columbus Optical, which moved in 1976 to 2475 Cottage Ave., near Central Avenue and 25th Street, will celebrate its 50th year in business. And while Oliver works at the store only about two days a week, the business remains firmly in control of the family.
Oliver’s son, John, works at the store full time. His daughter, Angela, works there, too. Charles’ brother, Bob DeMent, and John’s sons Corbin and Nicholas also have worked at the business.
John Oliver, a Columbus East graduate who holds a chemistry degree from Indiana University, worked in the petroleum industry in Indianapolis and Louisville in the early 1990s when the optical business was booming.
Charles Oliver said the two were talking on the phone one day, and he said, “Why don’t you just come back here.”
John Oliver said that as a young adult he considered Columbus to be too small and too quiet. But when he was invited to join the family business, he and his wife had a child on the way, and the city had changed dramatically and for the better.
He also knew the business, having worked there in summers during high school.
“I always got the dirty jobs,” he joked.
So he and his family moved to Columbus, and they’ve lived here since.
Charles Oliver said that he especially enjoys working with the patients.
A lot of times parents will come in with young children who did not know they had poor vision, he said. When those kids get their glasses, they often see clearly for the first time.
“The reaction you get ... is pretty rewarding,” he said.
Charles Oliver, now 70, said it is difficult for him to believe that nearly half a century has passed since he opened the shop.
His son also enjoys working with the patients, but he also likes the job for its variety. He is involved in anything from serving customers to marketing to making lenses. He finds the production side fun.
In the past few years, Columbus Optical has seen 10 to 15 percent increases in annual revenues and a growing customer base, in part because of the city’s population growth and because, John Oliver said, the industry is relatively recession-proof.
While people may cut back on expensive cars and vacations in tough times, he said people usually cut back very little on eye care.
Nonetheless, challenges remain.
Charles Oliver said that competing against large chains or big-box stores will remain difficult, in part because of the competitors’ larger advertising budgets.
“The only thing you can do is a better job,” he said.
Whatever the challenges, Charles Oliver said he is happy to see that Columbus Optical remains solidly in the hands of the family.
Charles Oliver said that when his son left to become a chemist, he did not expect him to come back — and now he has been back for more than 20 years.
“It’s great to have him here now,” he said.
It allows the elder Oliver more time to garden, chop wood and pursue other “outdoorsy stuff” on the 40 acres he owns south of town, but it also gives him time to reflect on what has transpired and what is yet to come.
His grandsons are studying to become a lawyer and an engineer, so they probably will not return to run the shop.
Although, he said, his son started as a chemist and came back anyway. And, he added with a chuckle, there’s always his 3-year-old granddaughter.