When he was just 14 years old, Norman Childs had a chance meeting that ultimately dictated the course of his life.
Sitting in a hospital waiting room while his grandfather was ill, Childs struck up a conversation with his grandfather’s brother-in-law, Dr. Stanley Pearle — the founder of the national chain of eye-care centers, Pearle Vision.
“He asked me what I was going to do after high school,” Childs recalled. “I told him I didn’t know, but it wouldn’t be college.”
As a teenager, Childs already had a passion for business, having had successful runs selling everything from cookware to jewelry. He was set on following his entrepreneurial spirit and had little interest in academics.
Pearle instructed the young Childs to call him after he graduated from high school and promised to give him a job. A few years later, Childs made sure he followed up.
“I thought glasses and sunglasses were sexy,” said Childs, who grew up in Stanton Heights and Squirrel Hill, attended Hillel Academy and graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School. “I thought I’d be selling sunglasses to rock stars.”
While that might not have happened right away, it most certainly is happening now.
From his humble start working at Pearle Vision on McKnight Road at the age of 19, earning just $2.65 an hour, Childs has gone on to build his own veritable eyewear empire and to create a brand that has become synonymous with high quality, unique design and excellent service.
“I knew that working at Pearle Vision would give me a tremendous education,” Childs said, recalling that almost immediately he was recognized, from among 9,000 employees, as Pearle’s top seller of tinted plastic lenses.
It became obvious that Childs had a calling.
So, in 1979, after being turned down for a bank loan, but armed with seven credit cards, Childs opened up his own shop on lower Murray Avenue, dubbing the store “Eyetique,” a named coined by his grandmother.
“The concept behind Eyetique,” Childs said, “is to handle the best brands in the world, while providing impeccable service.”
The business took off in 1986, he said, when, after sheer persistence, he was able to convince Oliver Peoples, a high-end eyewear brand that had just launched in Los Angeles, to allow him to be its first and exclusive distributor.
After three days of relentless nudging, Childs persuaded the California company to ship a box of frames to his little Murray Avenue store.
“I sliced open the box,” Childs said, “and people started buying them right out of the box.”
That was the beginning of Childs’ strategy of exclusivity.
“We sell brands you can’t buy anywhere else,” he said. “We have 42 brands that are exclusive in Pittsburgh, and 80 brands all together.”
Now 35 years later, Childs has 16 stores — including three under the name 3 Guys Optical, which features overruns sold at deep discounts — and his own line of “Norman Childs” eyewear, which has become his top-selling brand.
This past spring, Childs opened a new store in Sewickley and ventured his enterprise outside of Pittsburgh to open a store in Cleveland.
And he plans to keep growing, with the goal of opening four more stores by year’s end, focusing on the Ohio market.
Childs’ unbridled success can be attributed, at least in part, to his striking ad campaign: black-and-white photos of local and national celebrities sporting his frames. He has been running these ads, featuring celebrities from Marvin Hamlisch to Ben Roethlisberger, for the last 30 years, he said.
A hands-on kind of guy, Childs writes his own copy for the ads, which mostly play on the word Eyetique. “Composique” was used to describe Hamlisch; for Roethlisberger, the copy read “big benique.”
But Eyetique’s success also relies on good, old-fashioned business sense.
“Being in business, you have to have a point of differentiation,” Childs said. “There is an awful lot of competition. We have to be different. We’re going to handle the very best products in the world.
“And it’s about our employees being the very best they can be,” he continued. “You should have a certain feeling when you walk in the store. It’s not just about buying a pair of glasses; it’s about the experience you get.”
Childs has brought several family members aboard the business, including two brothers, his sister-in-law and two sons, he said. In addition to making the business the best it can be, they are all committed to community.
Just about anyone who comes into the store to ask for a donation to a charity gets one, Childs said. And he is active with the Jewish Association on Aging as well as the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition. His wife, Gail, is active in many local Jewish organizations as well.
“That makes what I do even more gratifying,” he said.
Childs seems pretty relaxed for an eyewear mogul, but maybe that’s because he is so clearly delighted with how his life has turned out.
“I’m doing all I want to do, businesswise and personally,” he said. “I think as you go through life, there are two things you need to have: You need to have a great attitude, and you need to be passionate.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)