Smith's Opticians, a True Houston Treasure

If the eyes are the window to the soul, there's no more soulful place to frame them than Philip Brown's store in Midtown.

By Loreta Kovacic November 1, 2016

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Smith's Opticians owner Philip Brown, far left, with the author and her family, all in Smith's specs.

My 6 year old piano student, Stella, sees me in my new pink shades and asks, "How many glasses do you have that are colored?" My reply: many. I ask her if she has any. She says no, because she does not need them. At this point, this is a discussion, so I decide to “open her mind a little” and I proceed to ask her, "Who ever said that only people who need them to see wear glasses? What about fashion?" 

And I admit to her then that I wear my pink glasses just for fashion. "Is that okay with you?" I ask. "Ahhhh," she sighs doubtfully, but I continue, not giving up on this: "Why wouldn’t you wear them for fashion?" Inevitably, 6-year-olds seem to have simple and ready answers for even life’s most complex questions. At this moment, she gifts me one of those direct answers: "Because I already like my own self," she says, without glasses. I love and cherish children’s precious insight.

It’s true that a lot of people think if you wear fashionable sunglasses inside that you are trying to hide yourself. This is why, in the latest years, I've begun to wear my glasses very lightly tinted, so that one could still see my face. However, even though I now see perfectly well, I cannot go without them—not outside, not inside, not anywhere.  I have to have glasses. Call me an addict. How wouldn’t I be when I wore them my whole life? Especially after LASIK eye surgery, I wear them just for style—or is it to hide my (aging) self, like Stella implied?

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A pair of Smith's Opticians glasses inside SugarHill Studios, another historic Houston treasure.

I first started wearing glasses in middle school. My mom said that every avid reader ends up wearing glasses, so I attributed my near-sightedness to Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and many other books I read passionately, in dim light, unable to put them down until dawn. At that time glasses were a symbol of nerddom, and I fit the bill pretty good. My glasses were just like everyone else’s, back in the days of Communist ex-Yugoslavia. They were not cool and they made us all look the same. When I came to the United States for graduate school, I expected more individual expression here in the free world, but to my disappointment, I found it to be not much different here in Capitalist America. Everyone’s glasses looked the same.

After immigrating to Texas, I began to feel a greater sense of freedom. This feeling came hand-in-hand with the need to reestablish myself, to stand out. My natural instinct was that glasses would be my way to the kingdom of individuality here in America. I refashioned myself as a “Texas Slav” and “Alchemist,” I started writing songs about my immigrant experience (“No Trouble in Texas”), and I began my long and wonderful relationship with unique glasses and shades.

For me, I feel that glasses define both your look and the look of the era. Glasses can frame your personality, adding to it or—if you've chosen differently—detracting from it too. Glasses are powerful, a chosen accessory, and choice is a beautiful thing in the free world. I believe that the choice of glasses is more potent then makeup; indeed, for me they've replaced makeup entirely. Glasses are maybe even more important than one's hairstyle, I dare to say.

The more I hung out with the artistic types, the more I realized how much their look was defined by their glasses. Elton John with his palm tree glasses, Elvis with his cool aviators, Kurt Cobain with those sexy red shades… Color of glass is really important, I've found: seeing the world in pink is uplifting, where green is more calming. I think that ideally, we should start every day with a meditation, then thoughtfully choose a pair of shades for that day, because it can be a day-changing, or sometimes maybe even a life-changing choice… 

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Philip Brown outside the store he's owned in Midtown since 1981.

Twenty years ago, I discovered this weird little place called Smith's Opticians in Midtown that fell totally in line with my life philosophy on shades. Smith's, owned and run by Philip Brown, is nestled very close to downtown in what was once a not-so-good neighborhood that has been changing just like everything in Houston. It is on 4313 Austin St. at Wheeler, close to the Fiesta and the old Sears department store off 59. 

Phil is one of those Houston treasures, one of those unexpected pleasant surprises just like Smith's itself. I remember the first time I met him, surrounded by a big mess of glasses laying around everywhere in his shop. People in the store were from the neighborhood and it seemed like they were there to hang out, not just to buy new shades. I remember admiring Phil's collection of different and unique frames the likes of which I had never seen anywhere else. I fell in love with this weird place instantly.

I have to admit that on my first visit, deep down I had a slight doubt in Phil’s ability to deliver my prescription correctly in the midst of that artistic chaos. But he proved me wrong, and my relationship with Smith's Opticians began to blossom exponentially. To this day, paying Phil and his shop a visit is one of my favorite things to do in Houston. It is not just because he has the coolest frames in the universe, but also because I love talking to him.

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These are just a few of the options at Smith's.

From Phil, I know I will always learn some quirky, interesting fact or news about our city’s upcoming artists. Sometimes I will run into a local poet or fellow musician right there in the store. Like myself, Phil really loves artists and musicians. He told me recently about The Tontons, a local band he thinks should be a national success. He calls himself a consumer of music. I know that he is, because I remember him coming to some of my performances, especially the ones at Discovery Green, where I played original live scores to Georges Méliès's and Charlie Chaplin's silent films.

Once, I asked Phil who was his most interesting customer. He prefaced his answer by saying that Smith's serves everyone, from very shady drug dealers to ministers. And then, Phil zoomed in on the so-called “Monster in River Oaks,” whose victims spanned the city—not just River Oaks. This guy was a regular at Smith's Opticians said Phil, sporting his signature grin, before going on to say that he concluded very early on, a long time before the man's arrest, that he was a phony. "His stuff just did not add up," said Phil in his typical short, pragmatic way.

Today, Phil serves all the glasses needs of my two kids. It is a great feeling to go to the old store now with the whole family, and see my kids looking so great in their unique frames from our one and only optician. While they get fitted, I indulge in my regular chats with Phil, who enjoys telling me all about the unique and independent frame designers he's been bringing into the store. KREWE du Optic is a current favorite, brought in from New Orleans. He started stocking KREWE glasses almost as soon as they launched; now, they're a big deal, even worn by Beyoncé.

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Shades aren't always for fashion—they can be handy on those sunny Houston days too.

In Smith's, I always find something really different, something that calls my name, an attraction that has been ongoing for years. The last time, I stumbled into "specs of wood," wild-looking frames made with real wood. Phil also showed off some new designs from Kala Eyewear, based and made in Haywood, California. Phil says Kala knows what’s cool: "Tokyo tortoise," a classic tortoiseshell texture that’s always in, according to Phil. I totally agree.

Everything in Phil’s store is a better deal than it would be elsewhere, and I know this. I never have to pay a fortune for my awesome new glasses at Smith's. I see Phil as a small, independent businessman in the big world, standing alone against glasses monopoly Luxottica. Once tiny, like Smith's, the Italian-based company now owns everything from LensCrafters and Pearle Vision to the Target optical centers and the Sunglass Huts in every mall. Luxottica is huge, inflating the prices and controlling the market. Phil, like a Don Quixote of glasses, waves his banner of “No Luxottica brands here” with pride. Smith's Opticians is a landmark and a civic treasure in our great city, giving us that special mix of unique, independent, retro and friendly.  

Phil comes from a family of opticians from Oklahoma. He moved to Houston in 1977 and in 1981 he bought Smith's Opticians, running the business with his father, who died this year. So now, Phil is the last optician. He does not have any children. Yet I want him to be here forever. If anyone out there is into making movies, please make a movie about this place! Music for the movie needs to be a colorful mix from local artists and patrons. I know Phil would love it.

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