ANUSHA PARTHASARATHY walks down Broadway in search of the city’s oldest optical stores

Both Davey and Bros. and S.U.S. Davey Sons are easy to pick out from a street of optical stores on Broadway; they have wooden signboards that say ‘computerised testing done here’, operate out of Davey Mansion and are run by cousins who manage a business that began in 1920.

Dinesh C. Davey is behind the counter of S.U.S. Davey Sons. “The shop was first established in Moore Market in 1920 and after a while, moved to Broadway, further down the road. It was in 1958 that we came to this address,” he says. Dinesh has been taking care of this shop since 1979.

Davey & Bros., started around the same time as a branch, is now a separate shop run by his cousins. When the business was started, the shop imported frames from England and Germany. “We were even dealing with watches and cameras but not anymore,” Dinesh says. “Our customers included popular Tamil cine stars such as ‘Gemini’ Ganesan, M.R. Radha and others.”

Dinesh remembers a time when their store mostly sold rolled gold frames. “Students from surrounding schools and those who shopped in this area came to us. Now, of course, people are more brand conscious,” he adds.

Davey manufactured frames and set up a factory in Vyasarpadi in 1961. “When the Chinese models came into the business, we had to close it down. It also had to do with competition. There are no less than 50 opticians in every area now,” says Dinesh. “We’re a multi-brand store and import major brands. We have many loyal customers. In Chennai, if people are happy with a product, they invariably make it a family tradition to go to that particular store. And since wearing glasses is usually hereditary, some of our old customers even bring their grandchildren to this shop and it’s nice to see the kind of reputation we have built.”

Two buildings away is Porwal & Bros, which was started by Ottermal Rajaji Jain in 1933. It began and continues to operate out of this store in Broadway and has had a complete makeover. Run by Praveen J. Jain and Ramanik B. Jain, the shop is in the hands of the third generation.

“When we started here, there were just three of us selling frames and lenses. But now there are so many others on the same road,” says R.B. Jain, “We imported our frames and lenses from Europe and many film actors would come and buy from us. Since this area had many shops, the prices have been competitive.” Business goes on as usual and Jain hopes for better times.

On Wallajah Road is another old optician who began his business as Colvin & Co in 1927. In 1932, they moved a couple of blocks away and started C.G. Vasudevan Ophthalmic-opticians.

P.G. Lakshman Raj and P.G. Ethiraj, the third generation, now run the business. “We exported to Germany at that time. We procured the raw materials from there, put it together and exported it. Colvin & Co had a factory along with the shop where we did most of the manufacturing. About 100 people worked at the factory then,” says Lakshman. “The shop was closed a couple of years ago and demolished and now only this shop functions.”

For collectors

Lakshman still has some of the old metal frame boxes and many antique frames that he keeps aside for passionate collectors. “Most of them are at least 70 years old. We don’t sell them but sometimes frame collectors come looking for these designs. And we give it to them.”

He points to what he calls ‘Gandhi frames’, smaller ones with polished glass rims and long, curved ends. “You don’t get these designs anymore.”

Shell and rolled gold frames were popular a few decades ago. “Plastic lenses are in vogue now since they’re light weight. We sell the latest designs but make sure we maintain the standards set over the years,” says P.G. Ethiraj