A t first glance, Carofano, the eyewear shop, might not seem like much. The faded green awning blends too well into this block of Chapel, and if you wander inside, past the paper snowflakes stuck to the front window, you’ll find wood-framed plastic display shelves, a small table for consultations and a modest waiting area comprising two leather benches and a coffee table. Gray carpeting, a dropped ceiling and light blue walls round out the frame.
The first impression isn’t fancy, and yet there’s more here than meets the eye. Carofano’s storefront is a cared-for space a long time in the making. Everything seems in its rightful place, and there’s a feeling of warmth and welcome that’s hard to explain.
Until you meet owner Bob Richards, anyway. I sense Richards could strike up a conversation with just about anyone, and, since vision problems strike regardless of background or creed, he probably has.
Richards isn’t new to New Haven. He grew up wearing glasses made by James Carofano, who opened the shop in 1955. When Richards graduated from Hillhouse High School in the late 1960s, Carofano offered him a job. More than forty years later, Richards is the sole owner. He proudly says, “I sweep the sidewalk, I vacuum the carpets, I clean the bathroom, and I make the glasses.”
Though the shop is small and most of the limited inventory is on display, Richards takes the challenge of finding just the right frame very seriously, often pulling out catalogs for customers. If he doesn’t have exactly what someone is looking for in stock, he’ll get it delivered to the shop with no obligation to buy.
When it comes to what goes inside the frames, the possibilities are similarly wide. Richards makes bifocals and trifocals (which have three different prescription strengths); “transition lenses” that change from clear to tinted when exposed to sunlight; polycarbonate lenses for protective sport glasses; colored lenses for target practice (which he’s sold to some New Haven firemen and policemen); and even prescription swim goggles. Most of these he manufactures onsite. He also does repairs, which range from tightening loose screws to adjusting the fit of mail-order glasses to piecing back together the mangled optical casualties of pets and small children and accidents of all kinds.
In his own words, Richards is “old-school.” In the back of the shop he has a fax machine, a landline phone and a copier—but no computer. “New customers come in and say they found me on Yelp,” he told me, “and I think that’s great! I just don’t know what that looks like.” Walking into the shop one afternoon, I found him on the phone with Ray-Ban, asking the iconic eyewear brand to send more catalogs so he could view their products without being online.
Along one wall of his shop, he’s set up an exhibit of old optician’s machines, some dating back more than a century, which he dug out from the basement and cleaned up for display—alien metal contraptions with equally strange names, like “pupilometer” and “uni-chuk drill,” typed out on dainty white cards, meticulously arranged. (“I decided to make a little museum,” Richards told me; his sales reps have told him he’s the only optician in the state with such a collection.)
Clearly, Richards is a man who delights in his profession. But he also delights in his business. When I ask him to identify his favorite part of doing what he does, he says, “Helping people.” Coming from somebody else, this might have sounded like a canned response, but, in this case, the sincerity is easy to see.
Carofano of New Haven
1215A Chapel Street, New Haven (map)
Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri 8:30am-5pm; Wed, Sat 8:30am-12pm
Written and photographed by Kalli Angel.