Right off, Danny Goldberg's appearance suggests this is not your typical capitalist entrepreneur. The president and chief executive officer of the company is in old blue jeans, a pearl-snap button shirt, a beard reminiscent of a Smith Brothers Cough Drop box. He is toting a brief case.
"I guess it's just fate I wound up in the glasses business," Goldberg says. "Most people take a look at me and figure it should be candlemaking or herbal teas."
Danny Goldberg owns an optical company that pesists in the odd notion that good eyeglasses don't have to cost on a par with root canals or aluminium siding jobs.
The company's name is For Eyes, and for a flat $29, regardless of the prescription or size of lens, it will make and fit to your face a pair of clear, or tinted, or photochromatic glasses.
"This is a revolution we got going here," says Goldberg.
Apparently, the federal government agrees: Last year, the Senate Select Committee on Small Business, in hearings on the eyeglass, industry, cited For Eyes for trying to swim against the American stream. Glasses selling at the company's three Washington area stores (Georgetown, Falls Church, Silver Spring) were found to be on the average the lowest-priced in the area and the country.
Goldberg's "revolution" began in Philadelphia six years ago when he and his boyhood friend, Phil Wolman (now chairman of the board), decided to bust out of the optical shop where they were working and form their own company, one that would commit itself, no matter what, to high quality and low prices. "Not discount prices," says Goldberg. "Inexpensive prices. The point is, the other guy overcharges." He and Wolman started with $1,000 and almost no collateral.
Other Washington-area optical shops seem mixed in their reaction to For Eyes. Richard Bojnowksi, who works at Sight Center, Aspen Hill, doesn't think the chain cuts into his store's business. "But this morning a guy from the Navy came in here and said he bought his wife's glasses at For Eyes, and that he got a better deal than he would have at the post exchange."
Today Goldberg and company have 30 stores and 250 employes across the country, from Philly to San Francisco. Thirty more are on the way, says one company spokesman. The stores are not hippie, incense-heavy emporiums, but handsome, simple places clogged with "frats to freaks" as Goldberg puts it. These days, you can hardly wedge sideways in their Georgetown store.
The For Eyes customers now include Jimmy Buffett (who bought a pair in the Miami store) and Warren Zevon (who stopped in one day in the L.A. branch) and the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team. A while back pitcher Tug McGraw walked off the field before TV cameras wearing a For Eyes T-shirt. Goldberg, an all-time Phillies fan, missed it.
Goldberg himself wears glasses. They are clear and mod and rimless. They cost $44. "They're a designer model," he says a little sheepishly. "In a straight store, you'd pay a good 80 maybe 90 bucks for the same pair." He adds he's got maybe nine other pairs at home, most of them the $29 variety. Hes also got a $19 budget pair.
A lot of his philosophy Goldberg thinks he got from his father, now deceased, who was in the luggage repair business. But mainly, Danny Goldberg is a child of the '60s. He was heavily involved in protest against Vietnam, he says, "I came down to Washington for the marches. I was prepared. I brought a helmet." He experimented with drugs, like many of his peers. At Temple, instead of enrolling in commerce and finance, he studied anthropology. His final paper was on genetic myopia.
Though the optical business might at first seem unusual for a person of Goldberg's consciousness, in fact, he says, glasses might be the most social-political instrument of all. "I mean, if you can keep bringing people out of the dark . . ." He trails off. "Of course, that's looking at it from an ultimate point of view. All I know here and now is that glasses are a necessity for a lot of people. An I don't think they should get ripped off for them. We started this company with basically one idea. People came before profits."
Goldberg insists he and his partners (there are three other major figures besides Wolman and him) aren't getting wealthy off the business - and don't intend to. "My wife just reminded me I haven't paid the mortgage this month on the house," he says. "Look: We're a fluid company and we all do okay. But we're more a state of mind than a business. We don't hire just anybody. We look for people with the right head and the right heart."
Goldberg, married, with two children, lives in Philadelphia. He used to live on a 200-year-old farm an hour outside the city. One day the barn collapsed in the middle of the road. So they moved. "We used to have For Eyes picnics out there. People would come and camp out. The neighbors thought we were all a bunch of long-hairs, I guess."
So did people in the business when For Eyes started out. But the eye doctors never deserted them. (For Eyes cannot prescribe glasses, only grind and fit them.) The word got around. Now the chain sells thousands of pairs every day. The manager of the Georgetown shop guesses he averages 350 to 400 units per week.
"You see, we're trying to change this industry from the inside," Goldberg says. "In the early days, my friends would come up and say, 'Yeah, but what about the revolution? Here you are with your little capitalist business.' And I'd say, "The revolution's doing fine. You just don't see it. We're putting the revolution in practice.' Let's face it: The system is going to be sticking around. We think of ourselves as the true capitalists - the way capitalists were originally meant to be."