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A Story to Tell ...

SECOND PLACE: Dr. Jake Sunkin and his team are no simple purveyors of eyewear. They are master storytellers, too.

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INDEPENDENT OPTICAL / MT. PLEASANT, SC

OWNER: Jake Sunkin, OD and Chris Sunkin | URL: independent-optical.com | YEAR FOUNDED: 2019 | YEAR OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2019 |AREA: 3,000 sq. ft. | EMPLOYEES: 2 full-time | FACEBOOK: facebook.com/independent0ptical | INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/independentoptical | TOP BRANDS: Tom Davies, Ørgreen, Entourage of 7, Lowercase, Zeiss | BUILD OUT COST: $600,000


More than a dozen old typewriters flank a wall inside Independent Optical. Why are they there? What is their purpose?

The old-fashioned machines aren’t the only clue that something is different about this optical just outside of historic Charleston, SC.

You walk in ready to check out some frames. But where are the rows and rows of impersonal frame racks we’ve all become accustomed to? Certainly, there are frames everywhere. And yet, the display shelves — many of which were crafted by hand — are just as likely to feature books or items from a vintage 1950s garage sale as they are to showcase eyewear.

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A Story to Tell …

Then there are the frames themselves. This is where Independent Optical leans into its name. Small independent lines from around the world dominate the collection. Each line is displayed with expert care and diligent thought.

No. This clearly isn’t your typical optical.

As you cross the threshold you are walking into an experience. Everywhere your eye falls there is something to discover: Interior arches and columns; an exposed brick wall; an array of hand-made display tables made of 100-year-old southern yellow pine. This optical is meant to be savored like a glass of refreshing sweet tea.

A Story to Tell …

And that’s the kind of vibe Dr. Jake Sunkin and his father Chris Sunkin set out to create when they opened the business four years ago.

“What we found is that eyewear is so commoditized. It is large selections, and it is all the same,” says Chris Sunkin. “People have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter where they look to buy glasses.”

A Story to Tell …

The Sunkins set out to prove otherwise. Their marketing tagline says it best: “Ugly Glasses Not Sold Here.”

“Right off the bat, [customers] realize this is a very different place,” says Sunkin. “Preconceived notions go right out the window. My son is the visionary on these things. He is
design-minded.”

A Story to Tell …

The result is an optical that encourages you to stop and ponder. It asks for your presence in the moment. It is an optical that wants you to feel at home so it can get to know you. And if you allow the process, you’ll most likely head home with the best damn pair of glasses you’ve ever bought in your life.

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“My philosophy is to talk to [customers] until either they buy something or they leave,” explains Sunkin. “Tell them your name. Tell them who you are. Tell them about yourself. Tell them a story. Let them know why we think this is important to you and will appeal to you.”

A Story to Tell …

Everywhere your eye falls there is something to discover: arches and columns; exposed brick; hand-made display tables…

Everything inside Independent Optical doubles as a gateway to a compelling story, from the unique frame lines to the interior design, from the materials used in construction to the eclectic mix of seemingly random items interspersed throughout.

A Story to Tell …

The array of typewriters is a prime example.

“I once had a woman come here and see the typewriters and literally start crying,” says Sunkin, who holds a special affinity for the machines. “She said, ‘My dad had one of these and I
typed my homework on it.’

“Now you are no longer selling eyewear to people. You are relating to them.”

Caring for people as individuals, not just customers. Selecting lines with deliberation, not to simply check an inventory box. Opening a business that is reflective of its community, not just another bland optical. These are all things that help set Independent Optical apart. The art of storytelling brings it all together.

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“It takes effort to tell the story,” says Sunkin. “We’ve become familiar with telling the story and we enjoy it. And it resonates with people. I’m no longer trying to foist eyewear on you. I’m telling you a story.”

It is a story worth telling. It is a story worth hearing. And it is a story that keeps customers coming back.

A Story to Tell …

Five Cool Things About Independent Optical

1. GO WITH WHAT WORKS. Independent Optical has dabbled in a broad range of advertising. But what seems to really resonate is a simple sandwich board out front exclaiming: “Ugly Glasses Not Sold Here.” It is admittedly tongue-in-cheek. “We get calls asking, ‘Are you the ugly glasses people?,’” says Chris Sunkin. “When we ask, ‘How did you find us?’ the general response is, ‘The sign.’ We get people walking in the door asking where the ugly glasses selection is.”

2. BRICK LAYERS. Dr. Jake Sunkin and his father Chris became “brick experts” during the construction process. Once they realized new bricks wouldn’t do for an exposed interior wall, they found a supplier who’d salvaged bricks from demolished 19th century Baltimore row houses. The selection was made as a way to connect with Charleston’s historic charm.

3. EARLY HURDLES. Contractor and permit issues delayed the practice from opening for months. It finally did so the weekend of July 4th in 2019. It was slow going from there. Hurricane Dorian a few months later forced nearly a million South Carolinians to evacuate the coast. Then, a few months after that… COVID. Says Chris: “We were sitting here and looking at each other and saying, ‘OK. How long does the money last?’”

4. DO IT YOURSELF. The Sunkins realized early on that their contractors weren’t able to follow their vision. Thankfully, woodworking is a hobby of the elder Sunkin. So, father and son got to work. They handcrafted tables, shelves, and the sliding barn doors on the tech and contact lens rooms.

5. GOING THE DISTANCE. The team at Independent Optical has little interest in selling you a pair of glasses. Sure, they will do it. But they have bigger aspirations in mind. “We want to sell you every pair of glasses you ever buy for the rest of your life,” says Chris.

Fine Story

Independent Optical lives up to its name when it comes to its inventory. Small, independent frame lines are featured throughout the sales floor. “Everything here is very deliberate,” says Chris Sunkin. “No line is a duplicate. Everything has a different vibe, a different appeal. We believe it is our role to know everything about the line. Who makes it. What is the soul of the product. Then I can tell you about what you are putting on your face every day of your life.”

He rattled off several frame lines and included a few attributes of each: Ørgreen: “It is very Nordic. It is minimal and very appealing.” Tom Davies: “It is our best-selling line. It is very London: upscale and conservative.” VUE DC: “It is very French. It is eclectic. We are one of the only ones in the U.S. to carry it.” Eyevan: “It is Japanese designed for Japanese. You just marvel at it. I have an affinity for well-made things.”

PHOTO GALLERY (14 IMAGES)

JUDGES’ COMMENTS

  • Their marketing tagline says it all: “Ugly glasses not sold here.” The clever, snarky feel of the marketing speak gets people thinking about what is possible with an elevated eyewear experience. That’s the beauty of independent thinking in the eyewear space. It’s businesses (that) make the effort to stand out and provide excellent care and do this in a way that is fun and engaging, that add oxygen to our industry. — David Duralde, Chief Creative Officer, OGI Eyewear, Minneapolis, MN
  • The story is in the name, Independent Optical. With his sights set not on the immediate sale but building trust and relationships with his patients, Dr. Jake is providing an experience first and offerings second. With craft — Jenn Denham, Head of Business Development, Review Wave, McKinney, TX
  • I am always a fan of older buildings and retaining or using old brick to create the feel of an older structure. The old “sewing machine” style legs on the display tables bring back memories of my grandmother. — Jan Ennis, President/CEO, Ennco Display Systems, Redmond, WA
  • I very much enjoyed how they thoroughly and thoughtfully answered every single question. It seems they have taken the same approach in their store. Everything is done very thoughtfully and intentionally. The store itself is very cool. All of the details make it such a unique and welcoming space. — Paige Kraemer, ABOC, Sales Consultant – Minnesota, Cherry Optical Lab, Green Bay, WI

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