CARLSBAD — Bill Stephenson’s father was upset when he heard his son was known around town as the “Eyeglass Nazi.” He was unaware of the reference to the Soup Nazi character on “Seinfeld” remembered for lines of faithful customers who filed out the door and down the street.
“I said, ‘Dad, that’s a good thing,’” Stephenson said smiling. “I’m a huge fan of ‘Seinfeld.’”
Stephenson owns Hot Shots Eyewear Repair Specialists at the corner of Carlsbad Village Drive and Madison. He specializes in while-u-wait eyeglass repair at prices that are so affordable, many people think they’re unreasonable. His most popular service is adjusting eyeglasses, something he does for free.
The Soup Nazi metaphor also comes from the efficient, regimented manner in which he handles customer service. But unlike the Soup Nazi who terrifies his customers, Stephenson charms them with humility and generosity that are rare these days.
When his doors open at 9 a.m. on Monday, chances are people are already gathering. By the end of the week he’s repaired hinges, replaced bridges and removed scratches from lenses for about 1,200 customers.
Stephenson got the idea for his business in the early 1990s working as an optician for Dr. Leventhal’s. Frustrated that he was unable to repair clients’ glasses, he made a deal with Leventhal to offer a new service.
In 1994 he went out on his own, renting space above his current location. The business name “Hot Shots” was inspired by volunteer work with the Lions Cub and Lenscrafters’ Gift of Sight programs.
“I’d adjust glasses at old folks’ homes and they’d call me ‘hot shot’ or ‘tiger’ — things old guys say.”
Stephenson worked nights at 7-Eleven to cover business losses the first couple of years. All that changed around 1998 when he began generating regular work from doctors.
Today, Stephenson works steadily in his windowless workroom, monitoring activity in the waiting room with a surveillance camera. He makes his profit purely on volume. He says it’s called job security.
“Instead of cleaning three cars for $100 each, you clean 10 cars for $10 each,” he said. “Each person can tell up to 10 people. I’d have to be fired by thousands and thousands of people (to impact on business).”
One thing Stephenson doesn’t like is conflict. In the time it takes to argue, he says he could have fixed the problem.
“I used to get frustrated and found it was wearing me out,” he said. “It’s easier to smile and be kind.”
Not all customers are as considerate.
“They’ll call me from their cell phone in the waiting room and want to see me,” he said. “I’ll say, ‘I won’t let you sit there for more than 15 minutes.’”
What many don’t appreciate is the precision that is critical to his trade.
“My work affects the way people see,” he said. “If I make a mistake, cops could be called or women could send their husbands down here to threaten me … which has happened.”
The mild-mannered Stephenson refers to an incident in which the husband of a disgruntled customer ran into his workroom and pinned him to the counter. Stephenson jumped on the assailant and the men scuffled, rolling into the waiting room.
“He told me to quit and I said I wouldn’t,” Stephenson said. “He had a heart attack right here on the carpet.”
Fortunately, the man survived.
On another occasion, it was a woman who ambushed him.
“She threw hot coffee on me and ripped her clothes on the way out so it would look like I attacked her,” he said. “When she returned with her boyfriend the cops were already here.”
For most customers Stephenson is a modern-day Santa toiling in his workshop.
“It is unconventional to have someone this reasonable and accessible to take this good care of our glasses,” Grady Aldridge said. “I’m very physical. He kept repairing my glasses over and over again for 13 years. Finally, he said he would replace the face plate for free.”
Stephenson does a lot of pro bono work he won’t talk about. He did, however, hint about “calls from school nurses.”
“Talking about it would defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?” he asked coyly. “The people who get helped know who helped them.”
Hot Shots Eyeware Repair is located at 690 Carlsbad Village Drive, #102, in Carlsbad. Call (760) 720-9115 or visit repaireyewear.com for details.