Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Mark Norrell got his first job at an optical shop when he was in college. "When I was going to SF State, I needed a job and a buddy from school had an uncle who was an optometrist that needed an assistant. That's how I started to learn about vintage frames. I found out you could really change your style with a pair of glasses." After a post-college career repping eyewear companies, Mark took over West Portal Optical in 2011 because it reminded him of an old optometrist"s practice: Dusty and full of history. These days, you'll find Mark there with his trusty sidekick —Monty, the French Bulldog— helping clients find the perfect frames to express their style. "The three most important people that can change your appearance the most dramatically are your hair stylist/barber, optician, and tailor/clothier," he says. "The optician is literally the bridge between the other two."
We sat down with Mark and Monty to learn more about West Portal Optical and what makes them so bullish on the neighborhood. From a bustling retail corridor to a hipper population, don't be surprised if Mark makes you a West Portal believer.
What drew you to West Portal? Why do you stay?
"West Portal is a great merchant corridor to be on, with three Muni lines that connect us to downtown. If you want to get out of the grit of Market Street for some solace, [we are] 10 minutes away. I saw West Portal as a fixer project as nothing had been done to revitalize the street in many years... I thought, let's just start calling people to get them over here to take a look at the hood. I've gotten six businesses to move in: Market and Rye, La Boulange, San Marco Leathers, Marin Frames, Trattoria da Vittorio, and Toast Eatery. [I] told everyone about the potential over here, and helped them connect with the building owners. The reason I stay is I need to add more retailers!"
How has the neighborhood changed in the time you've been there?
"Younger, hipper, gayer! When I first took over the store and I saw someone with serious street style cred, I'd think, 'Is that person lost or just visiting a relative?' Then, slowly, you'd see more and more people over here hanging out."
Retailers around the city are facing rising rents. Why should they move to West Portal?
"Because you can get a place at $3 a square foot gross? The days of being on major corridors like Fillmore, Mission, and Union Street are changing with the dynamics of social media and the Internet… Add to the fact that West Portal has a captive audience of west side neighborhoods. Another reason to move to West Portal is that household income in the surrounding neighborhoods is higher than Pacific Heights! That just came out in a study from the Mayor's Office of Economic Development.
What brands do you carry at West Portal Optical?
"Oliver Goldsmith for classic sunglasses that make you look like a magnate or a femme fatale, Caroline Abram for Parisienne feminine eyewear, Claire Goldsmith for bold formal eyewear, Freudenhaus unique metal frames, Oliver Peoples for my cross the spectrum collection, and Kala Eyewear for handmade American classics."
The frame styles you carry have a European flair. What draws you to those styles?
Shape is what draws me the most to a frame then material and color. I want handmade frames from small workshops in Europe because the quality is unmistakable when you hold it in your hands or wear them on your nose. Independent designers can take more chances with shapes and colors than the mass-produced, branded eyewear that has to appeal to the largest common denominator. The French designers are really about super feminine shapes while the English and German designers go with bold angular shapes. I like to choose frames that bridge the hairstyle and clothes. I also choose what is rare and different since my clients don't want to wear something 5 million other women are wearing.
Where do you shop in San Francisco?
"Unionmade! If I could move into that store I would."
What do you think is the best thing about living in San Francisco?
"Reinvention. My favorite quote about San Francisco is from Oscar Wilde, 'It's an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world.'"