Murray Optician owners (from left) s Joe and Lori Cooney and associate Walt Scarborough. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

by Sue Ann Rybak

For 56 years, J.L. Murray Opticians & Co. at 8632 Germantown Ave. has helped generations of Hillers see clearly, but on March 31 the store will close its doors for the final time.

Joseph Murray opened the store in 1961. In 1976, optician Joseph Cooney started working for Murray. When Murray retired in 1989, Cooney and his wife, Lori, bought the store. In 1990, optician Walt Scarborough, an associate, joined the staff.

For more than 40 years, Cooney, whose father was an optician, visited customers in the hospital, their homes or senior living facilities.

“Caretakers would often call and ask if we could go to a family member’s room or house to pick-up a prescription, repair glasses or deliver new glasses to someone who, for whatever reason, couldn’t get out,” he said. “Occasionally, a customer might call and say ‘I am running late. Can you stay open?’ Of course, we did. You do what you can to help people.”

Cooney said it was never about just making a sale. It was about helping someone improve – one of life’s greatest gifts – sight.

He told a story about a 2-year-old boy who came in the store with his parent to get his first pair of glasses.

“The little boy’s face just lit up after I put the glasses on him,” said the father of four adult children. “It was probably the first time the world wasn’t a blur. Many times, you can correct a problem before it gets worse. Just knowing I helped put that smile on his face means a lot.”

Cooney said he loved making glasses by hand and making sure they fit correctly.

“You used to need a license in Pennsylvania to be an optician,” he said. “If you decided you wanted to open a store tomorrow and be an optician you could. In other states, you must have a license to dispense eye wear.”

He said it is no longer necessary to make glasses by hand.

“For a lot of machines, all you need is someone who knows how to push a button and the machine will do all the work,” Cooney said. “We pride ourselves on customer service. We take care of people one-on-one. It’s very rare for a customer to return to a chain store and be waited on by the same person they had a year ago. In many big chain stores, you rarely see the same optician twice.”

Unfortunately, he said technology has changed the way customers buy their glasses. Cooney said many small businesses can’t compete with big chain stores and the Internet.

“It’s really tough to survive, if you don’t have your own doctor [optometrist] on the premises,” he said.

Then you are depending on other doctors to send people to you and for many years that worked just fine. Now, almost all doctors [optometrists] have their own optical stores in the same facility. Each year there are less and less doctors, who don’t have optical facilities.”

He said chain stores like J.C. Penny’s and Sears provide one-stop shopping for customers. Joe’s wife, Lori, 60, added that a lot of people prefer to order their frames online.

“They self-measure for their frames and whatever they get in return they are OK with,” she said. “We are very service oriented. “Joe has customers who have been coming here for 40 years. Customers who have moved out of the area will come to the store when they are visiting. The store has a very loyal following, but we are not getting younger customers in their 20s and 30s because they prefer to order their glasses online.”

Lori said she will miss their customers and hearing about their families.

“You form relationships with customers, and over the years we have become friends,” she said.

We are always excited to see customers whose children used to come to get their glasses here and are graduating from college, getting married and having children of their own. Many former customers who have moved out of the area will come here to get new glasses or have them repaired when they are in town visiting.”

Martha Sharkey, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Business District, said J.L. Murray & Co. has been an integral member of the Chestnut Hill Business Community for more than 50 years.

“So many members of our neighborhood and beyond were able to see the world more clearly due to J.L. Murray’s dedication to the community,” she said. “While Chestnut Hill is experiencing growth with many new businesses opening their doors, we always feel a great loss when one of our businesses closes their doors.

“Chestnut Hill is an incredible urban village within the City of Philadelphia. The sustainability of our commercial corridor is important for the overall health of the neighborhood. We encourage all of our neighbors – near and far – to continue buying local and supporting the businesses within Chestnut Hill.”

Chestnut Hill resident Susan Roberts has been coming to Murray for more than 20 years.

“I am beside myself,” she said. “This kind of service you don’t get anywhere. My kids inherited my husband’s poor eyesight. I used to have vision like a pilot. My family has been coming here for years. Now that I need glasses, I don’t know where I am going to go.”

Worcester resident Phyllis O’Connor has been coming to the store for over 30 years. She came into the store to get her glasses adjusted and say “Goodbye.”

She reminisced with Joe about family and friends. As they smiled and laughed, it was obvious that Murray Opticians was more than just a store, it was at its core part of what makes Chestnut Hill a great community.

For more information about J.L. Murray Opticians & Co. call 215-247-0411 or go to All in-stock frames, sunglasses and accessories are 40 percent off.

ht All in-stock frames, sunglasses and accessories are 40 percent off.

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