Posted on April 13, 2021 at 12:08 pm by Carol Tannenhauser
By Susanne Beck
For more than 40 years, near-sighted and far-sighted Upper West Siders — and those with astigmatisms — have found their way to The Eye Man on Broadway at 81st Street, hoping to clear up their vision and, sometimes, their minds, too.
Co-owner and licensed ophthalmic dispenser Lloyd Chautin, 71, has been there to help, manning the store almost daily since it opened, putting in the hours — up to 55 a week sometimes — and patiently working with customers to build loyalty and, in the process, increase sales.
It hasn’t been easy. “I wouldn’t want my children to be in retail,” Lloyd says, though his connections with his customers seem to compensate.
In his own words, Lloyd is a people person who has maintained friendships from as far back as elementary and high school, despite his self-described early geeky years. (“Who would have thought I’d be friends with the homecoming queen?” he marvels.) His success with relationships has paid off at work, too. It’s all about mutuality. While at least one of his customers calls him “Upper West Side royalty” Lloyd said he considers the customers the true kings and queens. “My feeling is the familiarity and the faces are important in retail,” he says. Judging by his extensive roster of faithful customers — from People magazine headliners to unknown Yelpers looking for a good deal (“The Eye Man rocks!” says one) — others feel the same way about him. They know that Lloyd can always be relied upon to provide a better lens for their future.
That is, until it came to COVID-19. Even The Eye Man couldn’t see that coming.
Lloyd admits he was as blindsided as everyone when his optical store had to shut abruptly last spring. When he locked the front door one weekday in early March, 2020, he could not foresee what was to come. He sent two of his long-serving employees, Hedda (30+ years) and Margot (15+), home with no clear idea as to when or how any of them might return.
Lloyd is accustomed to uncertainty. After all, retail is notorious for its unpredictability, especially for a business that is tied to fashion, like eyewear. “You go up and down like a yo-yo,” he says. That is part of the reason why his clients have come first. “You don’t just want to be a store. You want to be recognized for doing the right thing, doing right by the customer, and enjoy the prestige of getting your name known out there.”
Still, when it came to COVID, The Eye Man confesses, “I had no idea. We had never experienced anything like it before…It was brutal.” The closest experience was 9/11. “We were closed a couple of days then, that’s it. It affected business tremendously because people were getting over the shock of what happened. But COVID was something else entirely.”
At first, Lloyd tried to console himself and his staff by taking things day by day and hoping that the shutdown was not going to last. But conditions kept getting worse. He and his partner, Richard Baum, who generally stays behind the scenes, applied early for the first round of PPP loans, committed to keeping their three employees on the payroll, but it was barely enough to keep them afloat. “Between salaries and rent, it went real fast,” Lloyd recalls. So, they waited.
The business partners decided to open with much of the rest of the neighboring retailers in mid-June. “It was predicated on need,” Lloyd explains. “We had no real choice. If we could have gotten more PPP, we probably would have stayed closed longer.” He was concerned about the health of his staff – and his own well being – too. They instituted strict protocols including appointment-only entry, which remain in place to this day.
“It’s funny, when 9/11 happened, vendors – like contact lens vendors, frame vendors, lens manufacturers – were understanding of slow payment,” Lloyd observes. “This time, they’re not nearly as understanding…because they are being pressured too.” And while sales are still down by almost 50%, Lloyd says, “It’s amazing we do the business we do.” Many long-term clients have moved out to second homes, or are reluctant to venture out much from their apartments. Walk-ins are not allowed, given their COVID restrictions. So, customer loyalty has been key.
The Eye Man has had plenty of sleepless nights since last March. “Sometimes you don’t even want to go in…because it’s going to be a really rough day…no one comes in the door, vendors calling for money…,” Lloyd sighs. He quickly adds with a grateful tone, “It makes you feel real good, though, when you see customers appreciate how hard you work to do for them. It’s very satisfying. The Upper West Side is very supportive of the people they like.”
Through it all Lloyd has been clearest about one thing: “I’ve been lucky all my life, really, really fortunate,” he says. He has worked with Page Six celebrities – from John Kennedy, Jr., (“always very polite”) to Howard Stern, Al Franken, and David Lee Roth (“I had no idea what his name was, but I knew his father was an ophthalmologist”) among others. For a guy who says, as a student, he was on “the wrong Dean’s list,” Lloyd has done very well by his customers — and himself.
“I’ve gone from being the blind man [he once was a window shade salesman] to The Eye Man,” he says, with a verbal wink. “Imus used to call himself the ‘I Man’,” he adds. “Now I am the only one.”
West Side Rag has been profiling small businesses, which are disappearing from the neighborhood at an alarming rate. To read more in this series, click here.