WESTERN SPRINGS – Since when is picking out glasses fun?
Kathy Maren walked around the counter and into the showroom of Combs EyeCare and EyeWear and immediately, the lime green connecting her entire upper half stands out.
Maren’s black and lime green blouse match her black and lime green earrings, which dangle on either side of her, yes, black and lime green-framed glasses. If she weren’t at work, she’d be wearing a black and lime green jacket, not a white lab coat.
Maren buys clothes based on whether they’ll go with any of her 25 pairs of glasses.
There’s the leopard print pair, the red pair for Christmas, the three pairs with feathers in the temple, the tortoise shell Guccis with a turquoise temple – probably her favorite – the black and pink pair that go with black pants, the Roberto Cavalli’s – her maiden name was Cavalli – and the wedding pair, with clear, almost invisible rims with crystals along the temple.
“Any time I go anywhere, I take my glasses to match what I’m wearing,” said Maren, an optician at Combs, 504 Hillgrove Ave. “I take 10 pairs if I’m going out of town for a week.”
Until 10 years ago, having to wear glasses was just that – a burden, Maren says. But that stigma has disappeared. The evidence is in all the boutiques that sell glasses with plain, non-prescription lenses, Maren says.
“It’s an accessory now,” she said. “ … And it’s a really good selling tool for me to tell a patient, ‘Why would you get one pair? What if you break it? Do you wear the same pair of shoes? Do you wear the same earrings? Why not change your glasses?’”
Maren remembers her first set of frames, which she got several years after starting as an receptionist for an optometrist in Darien. It was called the Rainbow, and it had a silver frame with a colored rim that could be customized. She chose blue to match her blue eyes.
After a year on the job, the optometrist, Jordon Beller, began training her to fit and test glasses, so he could see more patients.
“Back then there weren’t people to fit glasses,” Maren said. “The doctor did it all.”
When Beller closed his Darien location, Maren moved to Beller's Family Vision Care in La Grange, where she worked for 38 years managing the store. In March, she moved over to Combs in Western Spring, owned by Irene Combs, with whom Maren had frequently talked about working together.
Along the way, Maren accumulated her inventory of glasses, most of them from reps promoting their brands. The wedding pair, with nearly invisible rims, would have retailed for more than $1,000. She also helped start a program for optical technicians at Triton College.
“I never even went to college, and I’m teaching a college course on how to transpose prescriptions, how to adjust glasses, stuff like that,” said Maren, who taught under Beller.
She doesn’t have a degree, but she knows glasses like the back of her lens. If an architect walks in, she’ll recommend a basic, wide frame so he or she can see the whole table.
“If you fish, I’m going to suggest a pair of polarized sunglasses so you can see the fishies swim by when you’re not doing a good job,” said Maren, who maintains two different optometry accreditation.
And for me?
“This would be No. 1 because you’re dark," Maren said.
“If you put a black frame on a pale person, it looks horrible,” Maren said. “But you’ve got some yellow tones in there. So I’d do the geek chic look with you and make you look like that.”
Not bad. It took about 10 seconds.
“If I did something like this,” Maren said, grabbing a pair with a wiry frame, “I would turn you into a grandpa.”
With male customers, she typically walks them through the store and picks out glasses for them to try on.
“I usually suggest, ‘Why don’t you bring the wife back?’” Maren said. “Because if I make you look really, really good, you’re going to go through a mid-life crisis, you’re going to get a sports car, and it’s all going to be my fault because I really made your glasses look great.”
She gets comments about her own glasses all the time.
“It’s great for my business," she said." It’s what I do for a living. If I sold shoes, you’d be interviewing me about the 55,000 pairs of shoes I have that match my clothes.”
If a customer doesn’t get complimented on a new pair of glasses, Maren hasn’t done her job, she said. She knows that sliding on a new pair can change the way a person feels.
“It builds people’s confidence,” she said. “When they come in and they’re kind of like round-shouldered and downcast, and you put this pair of glasses on them, it changes their whole appearance. You can just see them pick up and they think it looks great. That’s what’s fun about my job.”
Maren wants picking out glasses to be "the most fun, exciting experience you’ve ever had."
Maybe that's why a number of her patients followed her to Combs, like the husband and wife who waited until she started working there to buy new glasses. Together, they went home with six pairs.