Eye-glass chain Warby Parker opened their first Rhode Island store on College Hill at the end of October. The Providence location, sell home without doing repairs one of the company’s over 100 brick-and-mortar retail shops, sits at the corner of Thayer and Meeting Street.
“We can’t wait to be an active part of the community on Thayer Street in Providence,” wrote Warby Parker co-founder Dave Gilboa in an email to The Herald. “Our Co-Founder, Andy Hunt, is a Brown alum and we’re looking forward to making it easier for nearby students and locals alike to access affordable and safe vision services.”
Though Warby Parker usually gives away a pair of glasses for every pair purchased, the company has had to pause the initiative because of economic stress caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
For Marina Triebenbacher ’22, Warby Parker’s financial accessibility is a selling point. “They’re reasonably priced and you have the option to try on a bunch of frames for free before you order one online,” Triebenbacher said. “Also, their blue light lenses are cheaper than most, which is useful as more students are taking classes online.”
Along with pausing the donation program, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic required public health procedures which strongly influenced the store’s opening.
“With so much changing in retail amidst COVID-19, we are committed to paving the way responsibly — to us, that starts by ensuring a safe shopping environment for our customers and employees, especially in this new location,” Gilboa wrote. The store enforces social distancing procedures, hand sanitation, contactless shopping features and team and customer health screenings.
During its opening week, the store offered perks for shoppers. The brand partnered with Butterbang, a local Providence bakery, to treat customers to a croissant cart. Workers also distributed ballot-compliant pens, voting resources and Rhode Island-specific voter checklists to shoppers before Election Day.
The decoration of the store also has a local flare. Artist Jackson Joyce RISD ’18 contributed murals both on the inside and on the exterior of the store.
Despite its efforts to connect to the community, some are still concerned about how the increased presence of chain stores on Thayer will influence the street’s character.
“There are numerous consequences of large chains buying out small, independent-owned stores — not all are inherently ‘bad’ for a local consumer,” said Zoe Pottinger ’22, an Urban Studies concentrator.
Although chain stores can often offer a more diverse array of goods at a cheaper price, Pottinger explained they still have detriments. “The social impacts of chain store proliferation cannot be overlooked: Local retail economies bring us closer to our neighbors and are foundational to building strong community ties.”
This idea of “community ties” is vitally important on a street like Thayer, which has seen a greater proliferation of chains than of independently-owned small businesses, The Herald previously reported.
“Thayer is what it is because we’ve got the non-chain stuff,” said Peter Zubiago ’22, a resident of East Greenwich and graduate of College Hill’s Moses Brown High School. As storefronts for small businesses start to close, “Thayer will lose a lot of the charm that makes it special.”
Zubiago also worries that the increased presence of chain restaurants and shops will edge out long existing classics.
“Overall, I’m a little scared that some of the places that make Thayer what it is — like East Side Pockets, Mike’s Calzones, Soban, both Bajas and ChinaTown — won’t be able to keep up,” Zubiago said. “These places do well right now, but as Thayer becomes more boutiquey, the unique charms of the local producers will fade.”