MONCTON – A vintage velvet couch rests between wooden shelves of eyeglasses at Off The Wall Eyewear Emporium. Local art and sunglass holders with moustaches decorate the walls. The shop on Elmwood Drive opened in November with some quirky products.
“They say that people want to be in the same group as everybody else. Everybody wants to conform. I’m like, ‘nah! That’s not true.’ There’s always a little bit of something in everybody who likes to bend the rule just a little, so I’m trying to bring in that option,” said owner Steve Charlebois.
The Ottawa native’s romance with eyewear started with a strange incident 25 years ago. Charlebois and his friend had walked into an eyewear store in Ottawa. Seeing his long hair and clothing, the owners thought he was planning to steal something. But a friendship developed instead.
“One day, the one guy just said, you should do this. Because I started helping out at their store, just for fun. I didn’t even get paid,” he said.
Charlebois listened. He went to optician school at Georgian College in Barrie, Ont. and worked at a lens crafter owned by Italian eyewear giant Luxottica. That brought him to the east coast, where the company closed its operations during the 2008 financial crisis.
Eventually, Charlebois and his wife ended up in Moncton. He had found work as an instructor for Oulton College’s optician program, which he helped launch by writing the curriculum. But after a few years, Charlebois decided it was time for a change.
“I thought about going back to school and changing careers entirely, and I was like, no. I’ve planned [the shop] for 10 years,” he said.
“I try to bring in quirky, funky stuff as much as I can.”
A decade ago, Charlebois had wanted to open a similar eyewear store in Barrie. But the lack of funding and knowledge about where to find it deterred him. Once in Moncton, he found support from people who directed him to organizations like 3Plus, which helped him with his business plan.
But the father of two’s journey to launching his own optics business was rocky. Before moving to Moncton, he was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and ADHD, causing him to lose his job.
“I saw doctors for a while. I still take medications. I’m not a person who feels that this is stuff that should be hidden. So if somebody was to come up to me and say, ‘I need a hug,’ I’d give him a hug,” he said.
Sometimes people need hugs man. You don’t know where somebody’s been that day, where somebody’s coming from. And sometimes you just can’t help it. It’s just the way they’re made.”
In November 2017, he finally opened his store. Off The Wall Eyewear Emporium carries retro eyeglasses by Shuron, as well as brands like France’s Julbo, John Lennon, Eddie Bauer and Modo’s Derek Lam and Eco. The shop also sells sunglasses and provides repair and lens fitting services.
“This is what I love. I love glasses. I love helping people,” he said. “I especially love when I get little kids in. They’re so funny. I love helping them.”
He loves that moment when they put on their first pair of glasses and realize, “oh my, I can see.”