Meeting Bruce Tobin, I think of something Mark Twain once said.
“Find something you enjoy doing and you'll never have to work a day in your life.”
Twain could have been writing about Bruce Tobin. The 67-year-old optician's passion, the thing he enjoys doing everyday is making prescription glasses and helping customers in his Glebe store Optical Excellence.
It's clear the moment you walk into Optical Excellence that this is not an ordinary chain store. The frames on the walls aren't afraid of colour or personality. There are red frames, orange frames, blue and green, round frames, square frames and frames that look like fried eggs. Stars and lightning bolts. Elton John and Dame Edna. It's the kind of store Andy Warhol might have had if he had become an optician.
Originally from Montreal, Tobin wanted to be an artist, sculptor and silk-screener. He got into the optical business part-time while a student in the 1970s. Shaping glass fit his artistic skill set and appealed to his eye for detail.
“I liked the work, and dealing with customers, giving them information,” Tobin says. “But mostly I liked being paid. At the time I thought I could go into debt to attend art school, or get paid working for the optician. I didn't have to think long to decide.”
Eventually, he bought the business Optical Excellence from the previous owners in 2004, keeping the name and little else. For some odd reason, the previous owners reserved half the store space to sell toys, greeting cards, paintings and children s' furniture.
It didn't make sense to Tobin.
So, he got rid of the kids' toys and greeting cards and expanded his inventory of frames to include more exotic tastes. There's nothing cut-rate about Optical Excellence. It's a full-service store, carrying designer frames you won't find anywhere else. Oliver Goldsmith, LA Eyeworks, Frederic Beausoleil, and his own line, Optical Excellence. He can make frames specifically to order through the Walter Wissing factory in Germany. Buying glasses here is like buying a tailored suit.
Because of it, the store does very well. Tobin knows his market, and the market knows him.
These days, there are lots of companies competing for your optical dollar. It's possible to buy prescription glasses online for something south of $100. They may not fit, or the lens trained precisely to the eye, but they're cheap. Tobin doesn't have a problem with them. Really.
“The online optical stores are fine if you're looking for a cheap pair of glasses to have around the house," he said. "If, however, you want glasses that fit well, work well and look good, nothing beats a personal fitting by an optician.”
Tobin has another passion, one that rivals his love of glasses. He's also a accomplished master golf pro, certified by the Canadian Golf Association and is currently teaching out of his home driving range. But when he retires and hands the reins over in a couple years, he intends to do the golf thing all the time.
“What do people do when they retire?” Tobin asks, pleading a little. “They either sit on the couch, or they do the passionate things they've been wanting to do for years. I have two passions, this business, and teaching golf. After about 60 years, I'm still studying golf. My father was a teacher. He also had a doctorate in golf. I have a master's degree. I think this is the teacher in me. I lived a wonderful life pursuing my passions.”
I think Mark Twain would approve.