VCPN’s Executive Editor Michele Silver visited two completely different optical shops in northern New Jersey to find stylish options for her smaller features. She not only found great glasses but also uncovered the great histories behind the owners and their businesses.
Modern wood floors and warm lighting create an instantly welcoming environment as I walk into Levato Eyewear. A front display case shows off owner Don Axelbrand’s personal collection of vintage frames, and he encourages me to try some on. Axelbrand, who has a youthful energy and nearly 40 years of experience in optometry, is immediately ready to joke around—although he takes his profession and service to his Ridgewood community quite seriously.
A native New Yorker, Axelbrand became a licensed optician in 1978 and went on to teach dispensing and manufacturing as well as manage and operate several optical businesses. After working as an optician in Bergen County for 15 years, he purchased Levato & Gaudiomonte Opticians in 2000. Over the past 18 months, he has been transitioning its name to Levato Eyewear, based on the fact that “Gaudiomonte” doesn’t exactly roll off customers’ tongues. “People would come in saying, ‘Levato and Guacamole’ or ‘Levato and something with a G that I can’t pronounce,’” he said.
His team comprises frame stylist/manager Jessie Martinez (pictured above with Axelbrand); frame stylist/social media manager Hannah Gomez; and optician/lab manager Ingrid Insignares. Levato Eyewear carries frames for the whole family; his littlest patients often stay with the practice until they’re old enough to drive there themselves. “We make it a family environment here—we want to know who you are,” Axelbrand said. “Whatever you need, we’re here for you and it’s really personal.” The conservative town of Ridgewood is a combination of old and new money; many residents commute to NYC, and there is a robust downtown with many shops and restaurants.
A curated frame selection from brands such as Alain Mikli, BOZ, Dolabany, Innotec, John Varvatos, iGreen, Gold & Wood and Oliver Peoples for adults; Jelly Bean, Lily Pulitzer, SwissFlex, Nike, Social Eyes and Converse for kids make for a fun browsing experience.
While I personally love many of those brands, they simply don’t fit my smaller face and nosebridge. Axelbrand directed me to the Ann Taylor Petite Collection from L’Amy America. Although I’ve worked in the optical industry for nearly three years, I still have a need for classic brown tortoise. We narrowed (pun intended) the choices to a rectangular-shaped pair (ATP808) and a more trendy, youthful rounded style with nosepads (ATP404). They both fit beautifully and would’ve had a place in my eyewear wardrobe, but I ultimately decided on the latter. I can’t wait to show them off in the fall!
As a Montclairian for the past nine years, I have passed by this optical boutique countless times. What I didn’t realize is the sheer volume of designer eyewear housed in this 900-square-foot store in existence since the 1960s, now owned by Bill Berk since 1972.
The bedroom community of Montclair, NJ, has been drawing New Yorkers by the trainloads over the past 10 years. Ethnic restaurants, good public schools, proximity to NYC, an art museum and annual festivals for film, food and wine have made this urban/suburban town very desirable.
Gleek & Howard’s frame boards are filled with stunning looks from Blake Kuwahara, Lindberg, SALT, Silhouette (this was one of the first European brands he stocked), Anne et Valentin, Mykita, Face à Face, Barton Perriera, Jacques Durand, Feb. 31 and Moscot (Gleek & Howard is the only location in New Jersey that sells this NYC-based brand). Finding new inventory from Europe and Japan is “an obsession,” Berk shared.
But he takes just as much pride in producing state-of-the-art lenses for his patients. “We try to accentuate the optics–we’re trying to give people quality,” said optician Justin Elmini (pictured above, left, next to Berk). “It’s all about demonstrating the value to the patients and standing by the product.”
When it was time for my fitting, I was struck by the super focused way in which Berk effortlessly chose five frames for me, each one funkier than the last but yet still wearable. We piled them in the store’s “Wish Dish” (an antique-looking plate with a spectacle image) located on the counter in the middle of the store. Then he patiently watched me put them on, explaining what he liked about each frame for my facial characteristics and lifestyle. Acetate styles from Bevel and theo fit my petite face the best; Berk especially loved a theo model in black with a middle layer of orange while I embraced a geometric pair from the Plie collection from the theo + James collaboration.
Gleek & Howard, which Berk refers to as a “little giant” of designer eyewear, will undergo a renovation over the next year. After all, for a shop that draws patients from a 25-mile radius, it seems fitting to have an interior design that reflects the hand-selected inventory and upscale quality of the optical work in progress here.