Day Job: Martina Grbac's eyeLAB makes glasses affordable for everyone

There's not much that Martina Grbac can't do. Previously gracing Denver stages with her cello and vocals in the now defunct indie rock group Matson Jones, Grbac's career has taken a rather surprising turn -- operating eyeLAB, her own self proclaimed garage optical shop.

The mission of eyeLAB, which Grbac launched recently at 2298 Clay Street, is simple: We all deserve high-quality eyeglasses that we love. As such, the prices of her frames are set on a sliding scale based on income, and donations are accepted by those who have a few extra dollars lying and can afford to pitch in to help folks get some great glasses without a hefty price tag.

We recently chatted with Grbac about her newest ventures in music, her humble beginnings with eyeLAB, and her motivation to help those who may not have extra duckets for eyeglasses.

In the music realm, you're probably best known as a quarter of the indie rock group Matson Jones. Are you still rocking your cello?

Yes. I've been recording quiet little songs in my apartment for the past two years and have lately been assembling small orchestra for that project, calling it: Crows, Vultures, Bulls. But this also happens to be the first time in like four years that Anna [Mascorella], Ross [Harada] (from MJ) and I have been in the same town, so we're getting some music together, too. It's all new material, and we're not even sure what kind of shape it will take yet. We have yet to come up with a new band name [laughs].

Your recent venture with eyeLAB is a truly innovative approach to eye care. How did eyeLAB come about?

With my tax refund! It's an idea I've been sitting on for a couple years. I continued working in the optical field [which was] my trusty "day job" for the last decade. When my tax refund came in this year, I decided to take a chance and give it a shot. I figured at the very least I'd succeed in providing my small network of friends and acquaintances with some affordable eyewear, but wouldn't it be great if it went farther than that? I just got so sick of watching so many people struggle financially and not get basic needs met; in a way I'm trying to overcome some of my own feelings of helplessness with this project.

Speaking of helping people who may not be in the best financial situations, you currently offer a sliding scale payment option -- which is something that I've never seen done in the eye wear industry. What led you to handle payments in this manner?

eyeLAB was pretty much born out of my own desires and wishes for such a place to exist. I'm a broke, uninsured artist... and I know tons of other broke and uninsured creative people like me who could really benefit from more affordable healthcare, not to mention the thousands of people in Denver, and everywhere, that have lost jobs or medical coverage in the last couple years.

Have there been any drawbacks to this payment system?

It's certainly more difficult to make money conducting business this way. At the moment, I'm not even getting any assistance or reimbursements from government programs, such as CICP (Colorado Indigent Care Program) or Medicaid, which are designed to help healthcare providers lower costs for low-income individuals and their families. I'm hoping to be set up with those programs in the next six months or so. For now, I model my system after the CICP sliding-scale and discount things as much as I can.

Really, I'm blessed with ignorance in this case -- I don't really know what it's like to make big bucks, so I don't feel like I'm missing anything. This type of business model is not for everyone, but I'm determined to make it work for me. I don't need much to survive and the flexibility I gain with self-employment will go a long way in helping me advance my art/music careers. It's been an extremely fulfilling experience, and I get the feeling it's only going to get better.

What's in store for eyeLAB in the last few months of 2010?

Right now, I'm the sole operator at eyeLAB, and things have been a little slow in developing. I'm really hoping to throw a couple rock show fundraisers to help keep the doors open. While eyeglasses are the focus of eyeLAB, I really want to broaden the shop to include local art, music and handmade goods. As soon as I can move the operation to a larger space, I'll be setting up a gallery.

At the moment have a couple designer trunk shows in the works. The next one will be on October 2 with Modo Eyewear. Because I'm doing this with very little start-up money, these trunk shows help me get a large selection of frames in for people to choose from. When it's over, eyeLAB returns to its humble "garage optical" status.

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Rachel Romero