- Associated Press - Friday, October 3, 2014

WEST CHESTER, Pa. (AP) - Dennis Berry said to his three kids a few years ago: “Which one of you wants this?”

By “this,” the longtime West Chester resident meant a home-based business that was more like a hobby - one that his children and friends had regularly razzed him about.

In his spare time for more than 10 years, the chemical industry career man had been selling monocles.

Yes, monocles. Eyewear that fell out of fashion in the 1930s, only to be revived by the likes of Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes and an advertising mascot, Mr. Peanut.

Yet in 2000, with scores of baby boomers squinting at menus, pill bottles, and virtually anything in small print, Berry believed monocles had a shot at a serious comeback.

“It was practical, and it solves a problem for a lot of people looking for a solution,” he said last week.

When he launched Nearsights Monocles, Berry was about 53 and experiencing his own blurry vision. At the same time, he was very active - jogging, bicycling, skiing, and sailing, all pastimes inconsistent with lugging around a pair of reading glasses.

He went to a local optician and had a monocle made for himself. He loved it, but not the price, and set off to find a cheaper supplier.

He found one. And, as luck would have it, the Internet was just starting to show promise as a cost-effective retail alternative to a bricks-and-mortar business.

“I thought I’d set up a little Yahoo store,” Berry said, “and see if anybody wanted to buy any of these things.”

They did.

Nearsights - a one-man operation - was profitable from the start with steady sales, though nothing like the doubling and tripling of revenue since son Jim answered his father’s plea for a successor. (He would not disclose the company’s financials.)

Mind you, it was not an overly enthusiastic rush to help. After all, Jim Berry had his own career: working for a technology start-up in San Francisco. So son essentially did nothing with dad’s business for about nine months.

Then he got laid off and had time on his hands. Jim Berry figured he would spend about six weeks tinkering with Nearsights.

“That was more than 18 months ago,” he said last week at his childhood home. “Now, it’s absolutely my full-time job.”

He’s no longer mocking his father’s perspective.

“This is a convenient, comfortable, and really fashionable alternative to reading glasses,” said Jim Berry, who, at 35, has not reached the middle-age milestone of needing vision assistance. But he’s busy ensuring that people who do also have eye-catching options.

His father now splits his time between West Chester, Vermont, Florida, and wherever sailing takes him and his wife.

The Nearsights transition appears to have been easier than most involving leadership changes at family businesses, said Michael McGrann, director of the Initiative for Family Business and Entrepreneurship at St. Joseph’s University.

“Oftentimes, it’s hard for a senior generation to let go of a business,” McGrann said. “In this case, he kind of wanted to.”

With an aerospace engineering degree from Pennsylvania State University, Jim Berry first addressed the problem that the Nearsights website “didn’t look legitimate.” It had just five products for sale and no customer testimonials or toll-free number, he said.

He added more lens sizes and diopter, or lens power, choices.

The company now has three product lines available at www.Nearsights.com and an increasing number of retail outlets: the classic monocle; a handheld “sport magnifier,” which Jim Berry touted as perfect for menu reading, and a highly durable “ruggedized tactical monocle.”

Prices range from $40 to $125. Lenses come clear, mirrored, and tinted (popular around Halloween).

All frames and most lenses are made in China. U.S. manufacturing options were few and cost-prohibitive, Jim Berry said. Orders are handled at a warehouse in Indiana.

Jack MacMaster, 60, said his first purchase six months ago was prompted by constantly dropping reading glasses. And their ugliness.

Of monocles, the 60-year-old security consultant with homes outside Las Vegas and Santa Fe, N.M., said: “It’s one elegant lens that can be easily stowed.”

Not that that has stopped some people from “laughing and pointing” when they spy him donning his. “I’m really quite odd to begin with,” MacMaster said, laughing. “This has set me one further step apart.”

For Dennis Berry, it’s a proud time for a father impressed with his son’s entrepreneurial initiative.

Said Jim Berry: “I’m not going to say this is a $10 billion company, but I can see us get to the point where I can live comfortably.”

See being the key word.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1uAsMqC

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Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.inquirer.com

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