The Sight Stuff

This third-generation eye-care specialist has a niche with a switch

by Janet Essman Franz

Dan ThomasLicensed optician Daniel M. Thomas was the only one of four siblings to follow their father into the family business. In 1993, the UVM grad took over Optical Service, his father’s Columbus, Ohio, business; two years later, he moved it to Burlington and renamed it Eyes of the World.

Whether he’s crafting lenses in his Burlington laboratory or tending sheep and horses at his Hinesburg farm, Daniel Thomas enjoys the sense of control he has working with his hands to produce something beautiful and useful. 

A licensed optician with 26 years’ experience, Thomas owns Eyes of the World, an independent optical shop where he manufactures and sells distinctive prescription eyewear. 

Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, Thomas loved hiking and camping and thought he wanted a career working outdoors. That brought him to Vermont the first time, in 1979, to study recreation management at the University of Vermont. Upon graduating in 1982 and not finding a job he wanted to do, he returned to Columbus with his college sweetheart, Susan Young, to work at his dad’s eyeglass store, Optical Service. In 1984, he and Susan were married in Middlebury, her home town.

Thomas is a third-generation eye care specialist. His paternal grandfather was an ophthalmologist who encouraged his son — Thomas’s father — to become an optician and helped him open Optical Service in 1949. 

Although not Thomas’ original career plan, going into business with his dad turned out to be a good move. He quickly learned the business of eyewear — earning an optician’s license and national certification — and became skilled at making lenses, fitting frames, and managing a store. He developed a knack for finding frames that would best complement a person’s face.

“Once I started doing this, I liked it,” Thomas says. “It’s a unique profession, with a combination of math that goes with the optics and the hands-on making of the glasses, and fitting and adjusting for patients. It’s the mix of making something that people use every day — that makes their lives easier.”

The youngest of four children, Thomas was the only one who went into the family business. In 1993 he took over the store from his dad, and he moved it to Burlington two years later. He and Susan  settled in Hinesburg where they raised three children. 

“We never wanted to leave Vermont and always intended to come back,” Thomas says. “My idea of what an eyeglass store should be would work better in Vermont.” His idea was “to make it more fun, not your typical mall doctor’s office. We try to take the medical office feel out of it, so that getting new glasses doesn’t have to be something you dread every two years.”

Thomas wanted his eyeglass store to be downtown and near the waterfront, with a retail space in front, a private area for doing eye exams, and room for a laboratory to make glasses. He found just the spot at 168 Battery St. Keeping the name Optical Service for his corporation, he named his shop Eyes of the World. 

The shop has a historic feel, with exposed brick and stone, enhanced with vintage and modern wall decor in vibrant colors. It is street-level and within walking distance to other downtown destinations. 

“I love it down here,” says Thomas. “The building is comfortable and you can always find a place to park.”

The selection at Eyes of the World is different from what shoppers find at most eyewear retailers. Eyeglass frames range from classic vintage to funky and unusual styles, with brands from well-known fashion designers such as Gucci and Kate Spade to those created by exclusive frame creators Lafont, Ogi, ProDesign Denmark, Theo, and Kala. 

Business grew steadily through the years, Thomas says, and he built a loyal customer base and good reputation. Eyes of the World is annually chosen as Burlington’s “Best Spectacles” store by readers of Seven Days. Customers’ word-of-mouth has been his best marketing tool, he says, although he does advertise in local media.

In 1996, optometrist Dora Sudarsky began working with Thomas to perform eye exams and write prescriptions, although about two-thirds of the store’s customers arrive with prescriptions written elsewhere. Anne Jenkins is Sudarsky’s office assistant. Optician Gary Causer, Thomas’ only employee, joined the staff six years ago.

Dr. Gary CauserEyes of the World is one of few independent opticians — not associated with doctors’ offices or chain stores — in the state. Gary Causer, a licensed optician, was hired six years ago.

Thomas is one of Vermont’s few independent opticians — those not associated with doctors’ offices or chain stores. He orders the prescription lenses from wholesale laboratories and does the fitting, sizing, and final manufacturing on-site.

“Most places don’t do that anymore; they order the glasses on the phone and hand them to you when you come in,” he says. “I like being in control of what we dispense. I get a feel for how the frame will hold up. Anything you do yourself, you take more pride in it.”

Thomas does not worry about competition from eyeglass retailers at the malls or big-box stores. “I don’t ever shop the competition,” he says. “I’m confident that what I’m doing is a good product and a fair price, and I don’t need to know what others are doing.”

Treating each pair of glasses and each customer individually helps make Thomas stand out. He takes the time to talk with customers, explain their choices, and help them decide what will work best. He stays informed of changes in lens industry so he knows what to recommend.

“There’s incredible lens technology on the market now. Things change daily. I talk with the labs, read trade journals, and go to trade shows twice a year,” he says.

Thomas also keeps up with the industry by networking with other opticians. He is actively involved with the Opticians Association of Vermont. He served as its secretary, treasurer, and president and has organized events.

“He’s a go-getter, very knowledgeable in the optical field and connected to the community,” says Pam Parizo, owner of Parizo’s Champlain Valley Eyecare in Rutland and a former president of the Opticians Association. “If we need something done — to find a location or contact someone in another state — he is not afraid to step up to the plate and follow through.”

Thomas is also active with the Hinesburg Lions Club, a community group that works to prevent blindness and help the visually impaired. Through the club, he makes eyeglasses for Hinesburg residents who cannot afford to purchase them, and collects used ones to donate where they’re needed. He is an officer and a past president. “It feels nice to be able to help people and support sight initiatives,” he says.

Through the years Thomas has seen many downtown businesses come and go with fluctuations in the economy, and sales of new eyeglasses have been flat recently. However, he says, the eyewear business is recession-resistant. 

“People will still need glasses. They may spend less, or not buy new frames, but they still need their glasses.” He admits that some of his products are expensive. “It’s easy to spend $500 on a pair of glasses today. With the latest optical technology, lenses can be expensive; but if someone’s looking for a bargain, we can do it.”

Dora Sudarsky and Anne JenkinsOptometrist Dora Sudarsky (left) began working with Thomas in 1996. Anne Jenkins, her office assistant, works three days a week: two for Sudarsky; one for Thomas.

The shop doesn’t depend on vision plans, although most insurance plans provide reimbursements for purchases made at the store, he says.

Thomas occasionally skis or hikes, and he plays golf once a year — “the Lion’s Club tournament,” he says with a chuckle — but he spends most of his time and energy at the store. Success has come as a result of long days, hard work, and finding the right balance between managing a business with doing optical work. For 12 years Thomas worked six days a week; he recently began taking Wednesdays off.

Three years ago, he and Susan purchased their dream home — an 1800s-era farm house with two barns “and plenty of work to do,” he says. They have sheep, llamas, alpacas, horses, and chickens. He enjoys tending the animals, while Susan creates products from fleece and sells them out of the house. At Christmas, the family ran a fleece gift shop in the barn.

Two of their three children are in college, with the oldest preparing for medical school. The youngest is a student at Champlain Valley Union High School.

Although he could be busier, he says, he is comfortable with his business and has no plans for expansion. “The best advice I ever got was to never open another store. I like to think that people come here to see us, and I can only be in one place at a time.” He also will not sell glasses via the Internet, “It’s a hands-on business. It’s difficult to buy glasses online and have them work well for you.” 

Asked what’s next, he says his plan is “to work less, but I’ll never retire. This used to be a business you would never retire from. It was very much a family business that would go from generation to generation. Customers would become lifelong customers. It’s still that way here.” 

Thomas says he intends to continue doing what he does best: making, fitting, and selling specs that make people feel good about how they see, and how others see them. •