Eastern States’ Roger Shyer to Retire, Shares Some Recollections With VM

(L to R) Eastern States’ Roger Shyer, Jason Shyer and Paul Shyer.
ELMONT, N.Y.—After more than 55 years in the optical frame business—the family business founded by Benjamin Shyer in 1938—Eastern States Eyewear’s Roger Shyer will be retiring at the end of the year.

Shyer, who is 76, has shared the role of co-president with Paul Shyer at the Long island, N.Y.-based company, which will mark its 80th year in business in 2018. Their second-generation leadership paved the way for Paul’s son, Jason Shyer, and more recently Evan Shyer, to take on an active role and enable the business to remain family-owned.

Eastern States Eyewear (ESE) has become known as an industry leader in distributing high end, luxury eyewear and sunglasses. Roger Shyer remembers “grabbing a sample case” and hitting the road in 1961, just after his service in the Army. He called on customers in the New York metro area. “At one time I could clearly say that in the late 60s and early 70s I knew pretty much all the optical retailers in the New York metro area on a first-name basis. For me it was always about relationships and friendships.”

Shyer recalls working with his two uncles and meeting customers face-to-face in New York and then starting to travel to cities on the East Coast. “We had a blast. But all of the companies in the U.S. at that time were selling American frames to optical accounts.

“In the late 60s in particular, we started to see some frames from Asia and Europe coming in at a lower price but there wasn’t much creativity there. However, sometimes companies come in and revolutionize the business. Avant Garde Optics’ Frank White was one of those leaders. He started bringing in unique types of frames from Europe, frames which were fashionable and on trend. He taught us all that fashion could change the business, that price was no longer the only thing.”

Said Shyer, “With my cousin Stan Besner from Ultra Palm, we set off in a different direction when we met Cari Zalloni and the team at Cazal in Germany. At the time, the company wasn’t interested in selling in America—they were afraid their very bold ideas wouldn’t be received here. But we took a chance and Cazal changed everything for our firm. We began a 40-year love affair and relationship with that company.”

Cazal brought the two companies (who continue to share distribution of the brand) into a new arena in the early 1980s as the brand broke ground and became a cultural phenomenon. In 2011, Eastern States reintroduced the Cazal Legends series to tap into the continued fascination of the look among musicians, pop stars and others. Shyer said, “Legends are the exact best sellers from when it first started; we view it as the true meaning of ‘vintage.’”

Said Shyer, “We each had three salesmen each at the time. And we realized that this could work for both of our firms. So we did a dual distributorship which is still very unique and possibly the only one of its kind in the industry today. We were each regional distributors, us in the Northeast and Ultra Palm in the Southeast, but Cazal enabled us both to expand across more of the U.S. It changed everything for us.” As it soon became clear that more hands were needed, Shyer said, “We’ve got a tiger by the tail. Paul is an optometrist and we owned a store on 23rd Street in the City. I asked if he could help—I said, ‘you run the inside and I’ll run the outside.’ So that began a new era for the company.

“And the guy truly responsible for our success was (the late) Felix Perry. He came to us right after Cazal came to be and he was one of a kind. There’s no one who didn’t love that guy, we miss him terribly.”

Eastern States continues to offer collections which span the fashion sector. The Jaguar brand is a long-term relationship with Menrad. Brillarte does the Diva collection for ESE. And, the team of Coco & Breezy are now launching a new idea with Eastern States this year, a unique and contemporary collection for the times.

Shyer will spend time in Florida with his family and remain a consultant to the company. He plans to be in Las Vegas at this month’s Vision Expo to greet customers as usual. “Maybe the headline here should be ‘A true dinosaur retires,’ Shyer said, laughing. “Seriously, it’s been amazing and has gone very fast. This is an amazing business.”