Wyoming People: Laramie’s Steve Grabowski Is One Of The World’s Last Old-Fashioned Opticians

Steve Grabowski is one of the last old-fashioned opticians in the country. He does house calls, he's had customers for decades, and he's got a list of customers and visitors from 43 countries. And going to his shop in Laramie is like entering a museum.

RJ
Renée Jean

June 11, 20239 min read

Steve Grabowski of Laramie is one of the world's last old-time opticians. He even dresses in period costume and has been known to make a house call or two.
Steve Grabowski of Laramie is one of the world's last old-time opticians. He even dresses in period costume and has been known to make a house call or two. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

Actor and horse rancher Robert Fuller, singer-songwriter Michael Martin Murphey, a cowboy from France, a Swedish couple who are big Western fans — these are just a few of the fan photos hanging on Steve Grabowski’s wall of customer and visitor fame in the Spectacle Emporium in Laramie, located on Second Street for going on 34 years now. 

The store itself is just as curious as the man, who routinely dresses the part of the “last old-fashioned optician.”  

So old-fashioned, in fact, that he still does house calls. And he does them dressed as if he had just walked out of a fresh, 1880s photograph, top hat, antique glasses, and all.  

Grabowski’s store is dressed up and ready to go in the same old-fashioned mode. There’s a slice of history from each and every American decade, whether its the late 1800s, the nifty '50s, the swinging '60s, right up to the ultra-modern day. 

Each artfully devised historical tableau comes with a selection of eyeglass scattered about that belong with that particular era.  

And yes, that does mean Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn glasses are absolutely on inventory. As are a pair of just plain fun bug-eyes made from two kitchen strainers wired together, and a plastic pair of great Groucho Marx glasses just right for laughs.

A collection of spectacles from the 1920s.
A collection of spectacles from the 1920s. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

No Matter How Old, No Matter How Odd 

You name it, and if it’s a pair of spectacles or sunglasses it’s no doubt in Grabowski’s store somewhere, no matter how old, or how odd. 

As an optician, Grabowski is focused on just making a quality pair of spectacles. He doesn’t do eye exams himself. He can take a prescription though, and put it in just about any frame a person can imagine. 

“We’ve had people from all over the world,” Grabowski told Cowboy state Daily. “And I’ve got a signup sheet up front for people to sign in. I especially make sure they sign in if they’re from (far away). I had a visitor from Nigeria the other day, and we had somebody from Belarus earlier this year.” 

So far, Grabowski can count at least 43 different countries in the guest book. That doesn’t count the ones who didn’t sign that he simply wrote down on a pocket calendar. 

“They come here, and no matter where they’re from, they’re just so enthralled with our Wild West,” Grabowski said, hand gesturing to the store at large, which is filled with all kinds of Western antiques and memorabilia.  

“They think it is so cool,” Grabowski said. 

There’s a glint in his eyes as he said that. It’s easy to tell he finds the memorabilia-stacked store just as cool as his customers do. 

All things with lenses are on display at the Spectacle Emporium in Downtown Laramie, like these vintage cameras.
All things with lenses are on display at the Spectacle Emporium in Downtown Laramie, like these vintage cameras. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

Customized Glasses For Every Style 

Grabowski frequently makes period glasses for re-enactors and scholarly impersonators who portray famous folks like Abraham Lincoln or Harry S. Truman.  

Among the most unusual glasses he’s made were an octagonal set of pince-nez, which he actually meant for himself.  

But when a re-enactor friend, Neal Berlin, wanted them, he couldn’t resist. They became a gift instead. 

“He just did so much for me,” Grabowski said, pointing at a photo of Neal on his wall of fame. “He wanted them, so I just had to give them to him.” 

Among Grabowski’s more recent creations is a circa 1850 pair of spectacles with a modern-day prescription. 

Putting unusual frames on modern-day prescription lenses is just another day at the office for Grabowski, who has made a lifelong career out of creating optical fashions for people. 

“It’s not as easy as people think,” he said. “You could pave Africa with bifocal lenses and not have two alike,” he said. “That’s how many different prescriptions and types of lenses there are.” 

Grabowski also has cabinets stuffed full of entirely different kinds of screws — at least 400 or so different ones with all different specs. Knowing which screw, which lens, and which frames go together for each pair of glasses is part of the craft and knowledge he’s developed over a lifetime. 

  • A variety of old-time spectacles.
    A variety of old-time spectacles. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)
  • Left, Marilyn Monroe glasses in the foreground with a poster of Marilyn in the back. Right, the Spectacle Emporium's Customer Wall of Fame.
    Left, Marilyn Monroe glasses in the foreground with a poster of Marilyn in the back. Right, the Spectacle Emporium's Customer Wall of Fame. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)
  • Steve Grabowski's great-grandfather started it all.
    Steve Grabowski's great-grandfather started it all. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)
  • Steve Grabowski also displays photos of some of his old-time family members.
    Steve Grabowski also displays photos of some of his old-time family members. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)
  • The Spectacle Emporium also has ultra-modern styles.
    The Spectacle Emporium also has ultra-modern styles. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

No Cookie Cutter Lenses 

Grabowski has seen all kinds of fads come and go, as well as troubling trends in his industry, some of which he believes make eyeglasses much less comfortable and efficient.  

Among these are the no-line bifocals, referred to as “progressive.” They’re in demand because that way no one can tell that a person’s wearing bifocals. But there’s a price that’s paid for that vanity, and that price often means headaches for the wearer thanks to eyestrain. 

“What they don’t tell you is that they’re much more distorted. Your vision isn’t nearly as sharp,” Grabowski said. You have to point your nose right at what you’re looking at, because it’s all blurry off to the side.” 

Grabowski, when he makes a lens for a customer, considers what type of work a person does. A librarian, for example, who might spend a lot of time looking up, may want a slightly different setup than someone who will mostly look down at something in their lap or straight ahead. 

This kind of care has brought Grabowski loyal, lifelong customers, who have been seeing him for decades. 

“My first customer was a UPS driver,” he said. “And he got sunglasses from us. But I never had him come back, so I thought, ‘Boy, what went wrong?’ But decades later, he came in, and told me it was the best pair of glasses he ever had.” 

But his next customer stayed for decades. His current longest-running customer is someone who has been coming to the store for their glasses the last 46 years.   

A favorite customer Grabowski recalled was a jeweler who wanted gold-rimmed glasses. 

“I showed him one that was gold-filled,” Grabowski said, chuckling. “Most people said ‘Oh, gold-filled, that’s a frill, I don’t need that. But he looked at it, and he says, ‘If I just keep this clean, I can keep it for the rest of my life.’ And he did. It was still in perfect condition when he died like 35 years later.” 

Steve Grabowski of Laramie is one of the world's last old-time opticians. He even dresses in period costume and has been known to make a house call or two.
Steve Grabowski of Laramie is one of the world's last old-time opticians. He even dresses in period costume and has been known to make a house call or two. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

Becoming An Optician 

Grabowski started out life thinking he would be an electrical engineer.  

“I got into Boulder during the hippie era,” he recalled. “There were too many riots and too much noise, and too many parties. So I gave up on that.” 

He went to Texas next, where he got a theological degree. But, along the way — with a wife and a new baby coming — a friend from Denver convinced him to try being an optician. 

Grabowski set up in Laramie after completing his coursework, because it’s just 25 miles from the homestead ranch his family owned, and he always knew that’s where he wanted to spend the rest of his life. 

In the beginning, times were lean, and there were moments he doubted his choice. That first three weeks were the worst. He had exactly zero customers for almost a month. 

But finally, the ice began to break. Eventually an eye doctor who actually didn’t want to sell glasses as well as perform eye exams, took a liking to Grabowski and sent customers his way. 

These days, however, fewer and fewer independent opticians are left. Grabowski said he’s told he’s the only one left in the front range of the Rockies. 

“They are few and far between everywhere,” he said. 

Independent opticians have been cut out of the eye-care loop, Grabowski said, because doctors today prefer to perform both the eye exams and sell the glasses as well. Sometimes they even refuse to give customers their prescriptions, even though federal law requires them to provide it.  

Grabowski has found customers must often take an artful approach to obtaining their prescription, telling the doctor their eyes are too tired after the exam to look at frames, that they’ll do it later.  

In some cases, Grabowski has had to call for a prescription himself. 

Getting the prescription has always been the biggest problem, he added. 

But Grabowski has no real regrets about becoming Laramie’s last old-fashioned optician. It’s brought him friends from around the world, and he’s had a lot of fun learning about the history behind every era of eye glass frame. 

“I love getting people out of trouble when they break their glasses and have a plane to catch in Denver this afternoon and can’t drive without their glasses,” Grabowski said. “I love meeting interesting people from all over the world. Jordan, Israel, Nigeria, Uzbekistan — well over 40 countries — and all so happy to be in the wild, wild West! And famous people — actors, musicians, reenactors, and former presidential cabinet members and governors and candidates. And ranchers. 

“I love saving little old ladies hundreds of dollars, sometimes thousands! I love making house calls and hospital calls when no one else will.”

Plus, being an optician brought him near to the ranch he loves, near Laramie, which he also loves.   

Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.

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RJ

Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter