UPPER WEST SIDE — Longtime local eye doctor Gary Tracy is moving on up — to a much bigger, and more expensive, space.
Days after the beloved Big Nick's closed its door this week, Tracy — who was John Lennon's optometrist in the years he was living at the Dakota before the legendary singer's death — said he's moving his shop three blocks north to West 79th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway.
Tracy, 65, said customer loyalty, the Internet and the explosion of foot traffic on Amsterdam Avenue have led to the burst of growth that allowed for the move. But what really took the shop to the next level, he said, was the arrival of the luxury residential building The Harrison, which opened across the street in 2009 and brought with it chain stores like Modell's and Crumbs.
"I have mixed feelings," confessed Tracy. "I don't like chains. I like supporting small businesses."
Still, the national chains drew a tremendous number of walk-in customers. Just last week, he said, a walk-in purchased four pairs of glasses in one visit.
Tracy said the expansion, which is expected to happen later this month, has been remarkable.
"In the last five years, I've grown more than the 15 years before that," he said.
The early 1970s marked the start of Tracy's practice, during which he moved from "rundown" Columbus Avenue between West 73rd and West 74th streets to "iffy" Amsterdam Avenue between West 76th and West 77th streets, and cultivated a strong customer base that included aspiring actors and actresses, neighboring storekeepers and local residents.
With a loyal following, Tracy was able to weather the tough years along Amsterdam Avenue, which he described as "a lost avenue until about five years ago."
But Tracy started to feel like he was outgrowing his longtime space. Though his landlord Alan Sackman offered him a chance to expand his operation when Sackman converts the residential space at the back of the store, Tracy thought by moving only a few blocks he could hold on to most of his clients and have access to a whole new realm of customers.
It's a big move, though: it shifts from 650-square-feet to 1,100-square-feet, and the rent will be nearly twice as much, not to mention construction costs.
Tracy, however, is feeling confident.
With a remodel by architects Fusayo Yokota and Richard Allon, the new space will "call attention to the glasses," which Tracy takes great pride in, Allon said.
Rather than bow to trends, Tracy carries unique glasses brands from countries like Germany and Switzerland, rather than by designers like Prada or Gucci, which he said you can get anywhere.
And though customers sometimes wander, drawn in by places with lower prices or deals, they come back for the personal service, Tracy said.
After more than a decade, for example, he got a surprise visit from Yoko Ono, who was pleased by the photo of her late husband on the wall. Tracy noticed his hands didn't shake like they did when treating John — he had been seeing movie stars and Broadway actors for years, after all.
Tracy's optometrist operation is literally a "mom and pop" shop, with his wife Julie, sons Keith and Eric and daughter Lyn helping out.
"In New York, any personal touch you can have [makes a difference]," he said.