Where some just see an old pair of glasses, Raymond Ascher, the 59-year-old owner of Phoenix Optical, sees both beauty and opportunity.
“I very much enjoy what I do,” Ascher said. “I get a kick out of selling frames. I love the vintage market and I love frames. I never get tired of looking at them. I’ve 14,000 pieces [in stock at his store in Berkeley] and I hungrily went through every single piece and I just look at them and compare. I just drool over a beautiful style. I say, ‘I’ll reproduce that’ or ‘I love that’ or ‘This one’s going to sell.’”
Ascher’s first job in the family business was helping his mother assemble combination metal and plastic eyeglass frames over 54 years ago in Detroit, Michigan. His uncle, who originally opened the store in 1931, had died, leaving Ascher’s mother and aunt in charge.
After graduating from college with a degree in chemical engineering, Ascher moved to Europe and worked as a consulting engineer and professor in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe.
“I didn’t come back to the business until my mother passed away in 1984,” Ascher said. “I thought I’d sell the company and then go back to Europe. But I couldn’t sell it. The company was basically out of business. We were still in downtown Detroit in the same building from 1931 to 1984. It was antiquated and downtown Detroit was decimated. Then I started going through our warehouses.
“We had warehouses in Europe, in Munich and in Oyonnax, France, and we had warehouses in Detroit. There were frames sitting in the warehouses from years and years and years back. My mother had started throwing away frames in our Detroit warehouse. There were barrels waiting to be thrown in the trash. I came in and stopped all that. We must have had somewhere between a million and two million frames between all of the locations. At that point I figured I was going to save everything, and anything else I could find to buy I’m going to buy it and keep it and put it away.”
Hoping to keep the family business alive, Ascher opened a series of shops to sell his family’s vast collection of frames, first in the Detroit area and eventually across the country from New York to Hollywood.
Then, in 1994, he purchased Phoenix Optical in downtown Berkeley and moved his family to Berkeley.
“I started putting these frames out, original pieces,” Ascher recalled. “We had frames from the turn of the century up to present. Every time I put the frames out, they were gone. So I figured it was a great idea. I don’t know why I saved them before, I didn’t save them for that reason, but it kept going.
“Any time I saw an old factory going out of business, or that someone had an old warehouse of things, they’d closed up in the ‘60s, I bought the whole thing. I bought everything they had. In Oyonnax I bought everything they had. Oyonnax is the area in France where they manufacture frames. And in Cadore in Italy which is where they manufacture frames. My friend Herbert Kerzenberger had the same idea 20 years earlier, he started buying frames. [Five years ago] we combined efforts and we had, collectively, four million frames. The combination is working very, very well between the two of us.”
Today the Ascher family only owns two stores, Phoenix Optical in Berkeley where Ray works with his daughter Monica, 20 and his son Julian 25, and the Spectacle Shop in San Francisco, run by daughter Lori, 29.
But the bulk of the Ascher’s business is not in selling to either Berkeley’s or San Francisco’s near- and far-sighted citizenry. He wholesales approximately 40,000 pairs of frames a year to retailers around the world, both brand new, never-used vintage frames and Ray’s own line of limited edition eyeglass frames manufactured in Europe under the name Eight Below Zero.
In their local shops, the Aschers only sell frames from their own collection, encompassing everything from original frames from the 1890s to the now much-loved but discontinued stylings of the 1990s.
“I have never gotten over my passion for the love of frames which started as a young child. My sister was the same way. We were raised that way. I’ll never lose that passion. No matter what happens I’ll stay involved.”