LAist Goes Shopping/Interview: 'Society of the Spectacle' in Highland Park
Throughout Los Angeles, small businesses play a integral role in the daily life of each neighborhood. When LAist stumbled upon the gorgeous 20s bungalow that houses the Society of the Spectacle eyewear boutique in Highland Park/Eagle Rock, we fell in love. It's a place where locals love to hang out—plus due to the shop's stellar ratings on Yelp and other sites, those living farther away often make a special trip just to shop there.
Sisters Amy and Katie O'Connell have turned the eyewear selection process into a fabulous experience. Whether it's the ghost-like picture of Slash staring at you from behind the window shade, or one of store's many quirky collections, there's much to see as you try on frames. LAist recently caught up with Katie O'Connell to learn about the history of the store, tips everyone should keep in mind when selecting new eyewear, and why Highland Park is such a fantastic and "mysteriously convenient" neighborhood.
LAist: When you were growing up, did you and your sister always want to open a store together?
Katie O'Connell: No. Believe it or not, this shop happened as a result of a dream my sister had. We live together and we worked at LA Eyeworks together, and one day she woke up and told me about this crazy dream. She doesn't ever talk about her dreams, but this one was really vivid. So the dream was the catalyst, and we decided we'd do it if we could find something affordable near our house here in Highland Park.
Society of the Spectacle in Highland Park / Photo by Michele Reverte
Was your experience at LA Eyeworks vital in preparing you to open your own store?
Absolutely. We'd worked for their wholesale division, which gave us the great benefit of being able to travel the world—visiting some of the most beautiful optical stores on the planet. I did that for 21 years and Amy did it for 10.
It's amazing to see how different merchants sell their wares to people. Some of it was really disheartening because it was so ubiquitous. You'd be in Sweden and it would look like every other shop, and you'd ask yourself, "Why doesn't this store look like Stockholm?" But at the same time, there were shops that had their own personality, and those were the amazing ones. You want to see a point of view. So when it came to our own shop, we knew we could do it and we weren't afraid.
When did you open the store?
In 2007, so it's been nearly three years.
What did this 20s-built bungalow look like when you first bought it?
The bungalow before it was "Tarted up"
One day we were out for breakfast with friends and we told them we wanted to find something on York Boulevard, because it's such a cute street. At one point I said, "Oh, there's that crappy one down at the end...but it's such an eyesore." To which my friend said, "Don't write that one off—you could totally tart it up!"
What'd you do to it?
Thankfully, my father is a contractor and my sister has some background in it, so we did everything ourselves. It was so much fun. The floors were covered in linoleum and newspaper and it had all these layers. My dad said, "We're going to take up the floor. If we get to the subfloor, we will find wood. And the wood will tell the story."
Well, it's gorgeous now. What was the idea behind the way you decorated the store?
When you sell eyewear, people always talk about collections, such as a collection of Oliver Peoples frames or LA Eyeworks. But I like the idea of many collections—marbles, bottles, fake birds, shells, balls of string—anything you can think of. So we have collections of eyewear, but we also have many other collections.
Where'd you get the vintage photos that are on your website and in the store?
A lot of people ask if the people in the photos are my family members! I find the pictures on eBay or at yard sales—pretty much anywhere I can find a photo of someone wearing glasses. I generally like them to be smiling, so they're happy in their glasses. I had to go through a learning curve, because a lot of vintage photos on eBay are incredibly small, so I have to get my ruler out and figure out how teeny they are.
I really love those photos because I think linking the past to today and referencing where we've been is really important. Especially nowadays.
Vintage photo / Photo by Michele Reverte
Have you two been into eyewear since you were really young?
I wasn't too serious about eyewear, though I did want to marry Elton John when I was 12. I actually poked the lenses out of my mom's sunglasses, painted them with nail polish and put sequins on them. And I used to wear fake glasses in the 80s—like Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman—when I went out dancing.
But when I got to LA Eyeworks, I got so into it. As an object they were very compelling to me and they've continued to be that way. I think it comes down to the fact that it's all about people's faces and their eyes. The whole process is different from buying shoes or a belt or whatever.
It's really personal, and for us it's about having that person be comfortable with who they are. I never want to impose my ideas on them. If they ask, I'll definitely give an opinion, but I'm more interested in discovering what their thing is—I want to find glasses that'll be good for them. You just want the process of picking out frames to be comfortable, inviting and happy.
In general, what are 1-2 important things to keep in mind when looking for the perfect frames?
Definitely the comfort and fit, and then how it makes you feel when you look at yourself. Don't be so obsessed with what everyone else is thinking. Really trust your instincts. We can guide and give suggestions about the fit and make sure it's right, but what you're feeling on the inside needs to be the all-encompassing guidance. "Do I feel OK? Does this feel like me?"
How many pairs of glasses do you personally own?
I haven't counted, but I have a huge drawer that's completely filled. When my prescription changes, I look at my drawer and think, "Do I want to wear those or do I want to wear something else?" So I just keep acquiring. But I also have serial monogamy with my glasses. I tend to wear one pair until I get tired of them.
How did you come up with the name Society of the Spectacle? Was it based on the book by Guy Debord?
It was a funny process and there were some martinis involved. Amy and I were doing word association. We knew the book existed but we didn't know too much about it. We wanted the store name to sound somewhat classic—older—not something like "Optix 2007!" We wanted it to have a different feel. Then we discovered the book. It is a profound piece of philosophy, plus the double entendre worked well.
The name has also led to some amazing conversations, because a lot of people are really into the book. I guess it's an interesting juxtaposition that our shop is named after a book that's about not consuming. It talks about what happens when the pursuit of everything external results in internal deterioration because we're all busy pursuing spectacle.
Although we do have items for sale, I think that's also a credible backstory for what we're trying to do—it's all about being who you really are rather than just chasing the trend of the moment.
What's your favorite eyewear brand?
It has to be LA Eyeworks. It's where I cut my teeth, and they are so fearless in taking on new ideas and moving things forward while still referencing the past. The owners, Gai and Barbara, have a large, museum-quality collection of eyewear, and I think that informs their style. They like to take what they know and expand on it. And of course they're fearless about color, so I love that.
Who made the glasses you're wearing now?
It's by Francis Klein and he's another favorite. He's another person who has a great history in the business, but his brand is more about decoration and playing with elements such as stones, carving and hand painting. His is another family-owned business. It's careful and small.
The same goes for Salt. Salt frames are more—I don't want to say mainstream—but they have a simple elegance. There are a lot of great eyewear companies, such as Salt, in this state. It recently occurred to me that about 6-7 of the brands we carry are based in California.
So, in a sense, you buy mostly local ingredients!
Totally. These are our fresh local frames. (laughs)
Speaking of the local area, what do you love most about Highland Park?
When you're on the edge of something, you often get the best view. We're kind of on the edge of LA here in Highland Park—in a little corner. I think it's one of the most interesting, dynamic parts of the city. It is subtle, but it's not trying to be something it's not. It's really intelligent; for whatever reason, a ton of librarians live here and I find that fascinating.
Highland Park is also mysteriously convenient. A lot of people think it's out of the way, but you're near every freeway. It's not that far from anywhere, so a lot of movie industry people live here, too. It's the greatest thing to have a shop in this area and to meet all these amazing people.
As I was talking to Amy earlier, she mentioned that if you ever were to open another store, she'd want it to have the feel of the cover of Neil Young's Topanga 1 album…
I don't know if we'll open another store, but if we did, that would be our next vision. We haven't had a dream about it yet, but that is a look that I would love to have. It could be a funky shack with macramé, indoor plants, planks—a natural and human feel. The current shop feels pretty natural, but I suppose that one would have more of a hippie vibe.
What are some of your favorite places to hang out in LA?
Good Girl Dinette is a super favorite right now. It's Asian comfort food and it's the most low-key atmosphere but beautifully executed. The food's great and it's really reasonable.
I also love the La Estrella taco truck on Avenue 54 and York. I send people there all the time because they have the best tacos ever. Taco truck talk is a major discussion around here. Everyone's got their favorite and we trash talk.
The Sniveling Sibling [home decor store] is really good. It has a bit of a vintage feel, but he's also broad in what he chooses, so you get a wide swath of nice things.
As for events, Art Night in Highland Park is incredible. There must be 20 galleries or studio spaces around here, but they're rarely open during regular hours. However, on Art Night, they all open up and it's so much fun. There's even a Spoke(n) Art bike ride that goes along with the event each month.
Is there any one art gallery in particular that you'd like to mention?
Mor York Gallery is a good one. I won't tell you why, because it is so profoundly amazing that you have to go there and discover it. It's right down the street on Avenue 50.
Thank you for speaking with LAist, Katie!