Services Planned for Eyewear Industry Pioneer, Shelly Lehrer

By

Shelly Lehrer.

CHATSWORTH, Calif.—Services are planned for Sheldon "Shelly" Lehrer, an early pioneer in the optical frames business, one of the first to import frames and cases to the U.S. eyewear market and arguably one of the industry's first value priced frames provider. Lehrer passed away recently after a long illness. Lehrer was known as a "maverick," a description used by Lehrer himself, along with family, friends, suppliers and competitors who often described the entrepreneurial spirit that guided the company he founded in 1949 to become today a diverse manufacturer, designer and distributor of eyewear and other products to a range of U.S. and international customers. Lehrer initially imported frames from Europe. Before importing from Europe, the company, initially known as Atlantic Optical, was a local distributor of domestic brands including: American Optical, Built-well, Stensel and Son, and Bausch and Lomb. Lehrer bought frames, which he then wholesaled to independent optometrists.

Lehrer began his long career in the optical industry before the Korean War. Starting as a shipping clerk for a frame “jobber” in New York, the owner bet his optometrist buddy a hundred dollars “this kid won’t last 6 months in business.” That was 70 years ago! Shelly’s company, Atlantic Optical, was among the first to import optical frames. Flying to France at age 23, he placed his first order for 1,000 frames. The shipment took a year to arrive, Shelly would remember.

After several more trips to Oyonnax, France, he pushed himself to become fluent in French because he was sure the translators he would hire were cutting themselves in on the deals. His custom design work in New York grew along with consumer demand for European-style eyewear. Through years of trial and error, Lehrer trained himself as a master engraver.

As Vision Monday reported in 2009, when the company marked its 60th anniversary, in the early 1970s, on a sales trip to Asia, Lehrer saw frames made in Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea and recognized an opportunity. As early as 1971, Lehrer began importing Asian-made optical frames for distribution in the U.S. market. Friends and family reported that Lehrer was known as “the Godfather” in Taegu, South Korea, and referred to as “the Cowboy” in Hong Kong.

He imported record quantities of frames and set up a sales distribution network around the U.S. Through this effort, he built a powerful team that included Dunn and Bradstreet executive Robert Perry. They were joined by an outside sales force that included such industry notables as Larry Bell, Al Wolfe, Duke Goldberg, Herman Zimmer and Stu Winefsky. The company worked with major optical chains and independents.

“Shelly Lehrer is a legend,” pure and simple, stated Bell,a long-time eyewear sales exec. Added Harvey Ross, now the head of HMR Holdings and the founder of Viva International Eyewear, "Shelly was a true pioneer and helped me get started in the eyewear business. I learned so much from him, about factories, production. I worked for him and he helped me with Jan Optics, and later on with Viva as we expanded across the U.S. and around the world. He was like nobody else."

House labels such as St. Moritz Eyewear and Geek Eyewear replaced early brands from the company.

He is survived by his sons Keith and Chett, who are still in the optical industry and oversee the company today, now known as LTD Eyewear. Shelly Lehrer is remembered for his quick wit, larger than life personality and industry knowledge. “My father loved friends and family with the heart of a lion,” remembers son Keith. “Tough, but fair dealing in business, and possessing an ultra-hard work ethic…these are Shelly’s traits I’ll always remember,” the younger Lehrer continued. “He will be terribly missed.”

A celebration of Life is planned for Sunday, Feb. 17, three days before what would have been Lehrer's 90th birthday. It will be held at 10:00 a.m. in Tarzana, Calif. at the El Caballero Country Club and details about attendance can be learned from Keith at KLehrer@LTDeyewear.com or Chett Lehrer at LTD Eyewear.