City of Gold and Lead

When I was a kid I used to go and visit my grandmother in Brantford and she would take me to the public library and we would borrow books in a series that included The City of Gold and Lead.

I don’t remember much about the books but I do remember a character named Beanpole who, what with the books being post-apocalyptic and all, was forced to fashion his own crude eyeglasses.

I recalled Beanpole today as I drove around Burlington, Ontario trying to find someone to repair the arm of my own eyeglasses, an arm that inexplicably went wonky over the weekend. The sad truth I discovered is that eyeglasses, like so much else these days, are now considered a consumable that you simply throw away when they break; my image of finding a master optician who would rummage around in the cellar until he found the materials needed to weld my glasses back to form has been dashed. Like television repair, there is no more eyeglasses repair; it is a dead craft.

Which is how I find myself sitting in the food court of the Mapleview Mall beside a gaggle of Bluetooth-headset-wearing seniors drinking Grandma Lee’s coffee and waiting for the personable staff at Lens Crafters to whip up a brand new pair of eyeglasses for me.

The staff at Lens Crafters were nice enough and all, but they are factory workers, not craftspeople, and they could no more construct a Beanpole-like pair of eyeglasses from scratch than today’s auto mechanics could build their own car.

The DIY silver lining in this story is that when I was stymied by a one-day closure of my eye doctor yesterday and unable to retrieve my prescription, I remembered that last year I’d blogged my prescription, and I simply grabbed it from there. Let those who cast aspersions on my habit of obsessive self-documenting take this as a lesson that, at least once in a Blue Moon, there’s a practical pay-off.


Chuck's picture
Chuck on June 16, 2009 - 17:22 Permalink

Twenty years ago I worked for EyeMasters, a LensCrafters competitor who got assimilated shortly after I left. (I have the worst eyesight of anyone I know personally, -11.25 in both eyes for glasses and -10.00 for contacts, so it’s proven incredibly useful for me to have spent two years “on the inside.”) I worked in the lab making eyeglasses.

Even then, the most extensive frame / arm repairs we did were usually restricted to things like securing an arm whose threads had been worn out, so the original (or a replacement) screw was useless. some Loc-Tite, or a miniature nut and bolt combination, usually did the trick nicely.

Ironically Peter, the staff at LensCrafters are usually much closer to craftspeople than those who work in the big optical labs that, say, Crown Optical ships your glasses to for manufacture. The big shops are truly assembly lines: the lab techs there only work one type of machine in a factory process. At a one-hour lab, the techs are trained so that after a few months they can take a pair of glasses all the way through the production process from intake to completion.

And for the record, simple eyeglass prescriptions (anything between +/- 3.50 in my day, and probably a wider range today) never take an hour to complete because you’re only “finishing” the lens: that is, edging a pre-made lens to fit the customer’s choice of frame so the center of the lens lines up with the center of your pupils (maybe ten to fifteen minutes depending on how many other jobs you have on the go). Only when the prescription falls outside that range do you actually have to grind and polish the prescription from a lens blank. That process takes about 40 minutes normally; the one-hour window gives you some padding in case there’s a SNAFU at some point in the journey.

When I’d been at EyeMasters nearly two years, the lab manager and I took a lazy Sunday to see just how quickly we could complete all the jobs. One customer ordered a pair of very nice (and expensive) Pentax lenses. Leapfrogging each other from station to station, we had them finished in 2:21 and caught the gentleman before he left the store. =) There are tolerances you’re not allowed to exceed by law, but because Ian and I were both quite practiced by this point, the axis and PD were bang on.

Each step was, even then, getting inexorably more computerized, but in my experience the lab techs get pretty good at fixing frames and lenses if they can be repaired. A bigger problem is that fewer and fewer frames are built to be repaired.

Katie's picture
Katie on June 16, 2009 - 18:50 Permalink

Wow — I had completely forgotten about those books! I read them many a moon ago and enjoyed them as well — maybe I will have to see if the library still has them and dig them up again.

Marian's picture
Marian on June 17, 2009 - 01:18 Permalink

I read those books too! You could try getting your glasses repaired in Europe. It was possible to do so in Hungary when I was there.

Jedidja's picture
Jedidja on June 17, 2009 - 01:28 Permalink

I had the same issue too; a perfectly good frame I had for ten years and it cost more to get new lenses than an entire new set (frame + lenses) .. and this was in Dublin!

Nancy in Vriginia's picture
Nancy in Vriginia on June 17, 2009 - 16:02 Permalink

The City of Gold and Lead: The Tripods Trilogy …John Christopher