OKEECHOBEE — The best way to ensure Gwen King will never give up is to tell her to give up, tell her something is impossible, or tell her she is bound to fail.
With the help of her husband Louis and her brother Bryan Ackland, Gwen opened The Optical Gallery in Sun Plaza in 1984, and then in 1989 they built the location the business now occupies.
When Gwen first decided to open her own optical shop, she heard a lot of negative comments. Many people told her she would never make it here, but the more she heard those things, the more determined she was to try harder and succeed. Louis told her he thought they should give it a year and then decide. Within a year, she had more business than she knew what to do with, he said.
After a few years, they decided it was time to branch out and buy their own property, build their own place. Louis, who worked full-time as the manager for Scotties at that time, spent his evenings and weekends tearing down the house that sat on the lot they purchased and putting up the building they use now. The house that was on the lot when they moved in was taxed as a CBS building, but when they started remodeling, they discovered it was actually wood covered with layers upon layers of stucco, and it was not worth saving.
The only part of the original structure they kept was the front walls because if they left them there, they were grandfathered in, but if they tore them down and rebuilt, they would have to move back about 20 feet from the highway. Many a night found him with his truck headlights aimed at the building at 11 p.m., so he could put up a wall in the dark he said. But he enjoyed doing it. He built just about everything in there himself. He had to get help with the drywall, because that wasn’t something he could do alone, but he did almost everything else.
A local doctor sold his practice and joined in with them which helped them grow really fast, she said. At their highest point, they had 14 employees, two optometrists and an ophthalmologist. Now, the staff consists of Dr. Richard Soldinger; Ackland, who works as an optician in the lab; Shelly McCown, who is the Kings’ daughter does the medical billing and serves as the receptionist; Louis, who is the office manager, works in the lab and is a jack of all trades around the place and Gwen, who is a licensed optician, bookkeeper, etc. At one point, Gwen’s parents even worked there. Now, the business is smaller and other than Dr. Soldinger is run by family, but Louis said really that is fine. It is not overwhelming but keeps them all just busy enough.
“We have had so many wonderful people working here over the years,” said Gwen. “We’ve been very blessed. Okeechobee has been very good to us.”
The Optical Gallery has its own surfacing lab and can make about 80% of the lenses needed by its customers. There are some specialty items that have to be done elsewhere, but for the most part, they can do the lenses right there in-house.
For many years, classes from Grace Christian school and Central Elementary School walked over for field trips. The teachers would tell Gwen which student was most in need of a pair of glasses and the entire class would crowd into the examination room to watch the whole process from beginning to end. They would watch the exam and then go into the lab and watch the glasses being made. They got to see the whole process. “It took a while, but was an experience they will never forget,” said Louis. “My back would kill me afterward,” he joked. “I had to pick up every one of them so they could see what we were doing.”
“When the glasses were finished the kids would put them on and everyone would ‘ahhh.’ It was so cool. We’ve had so many good memories here,” said Gwen.
The schools seldom come anymore. Gwen said she thinks they have forgotten about them, but they enjoyed the years they did come.
“Things have changed a lot over the years,” said Gwen. “I remember when we first started out, we could custom order things for people, so you really were an optician. You could fit and order parts, the right size frame, things like that. They came in all separate pieces and we assembled them. It’s nothing like that anymore. Now, you just pick something off the rack, and you don’t get a choice.”
“You have to change and adapt and grow. Sometimes I get tired, but then I get a good night’s sleep, have a cup of coffee and I’m ready to go again.”