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Budapest’s hidden treasures: Libál Optics

The 95-year-old owner of the Libál optical store in downtown Budapest has served her customers for more than seven decades.   

I was told that I had to wear glasses when I was seven. I was devastated. My grandmother took me to the nearest optician in Veres Pálné utca to buy my first pair of glasses. The little shop, with its unique green front and the big old-fashioned yellow sign with the name of the founder, Lajos Libál, on it, was completely different from all the other shops in the area.   

Inside, the first thing I noticed was the sweet smell of the spirit lamp used for warming up the frames. The next thing was an old sign that read, “If you are happy with the service, tell everyone; if not, tell me.” It was the most charming little shop I had ever seen, with a wiry old lady, Emi néni, standing behind the worn pale-green wooden counter. While I still hated the idea of having to wear glasses, I enjoyed every minute we spent there. 

And now, several years later, I am here again – a little stroll down memory lane. She looks almost the same, maybe a little more fragile. She does not trust me at first, but she opens up when I visit her for the second time. I could listen to her stories for hours.

Secrets of a long-term business model

The 95-year old Emi néni, more officially optician Józsefné Brassai, has worked in the Libál optical shop for 74 years. “You have to be there every single day,” she says when asked about the secret to having a successful business for such a long time. Another secret she reveals is that she keeps herself up-to-date with the latest in eyewear fashion by watching television and movies and reading magazines to see what kind of glasses trendy people wear.

“I come in at around ten o’clock, open the shop at 11, and I stay here until about five,” she explains. Asked how she manages to work such long hours, she says that she simply cannot be bothered by health issues. “At this age, your entire body is worn out. You have to come to terms with it. But you can see, I am still here.” She is, indeed. 

There is a lot to learn from Emi néni in terms of customer service, too. She knows everything about her regulars, from family affairs to the well being of the grandchildren. “They are not customers, they belong here.” She always asks potential buyers how much money they have first, and then recommends a frame within their price range. “Some customers are looking for a specific design they saw on someone else, regardless of their own skull-bone structure,” she says with an exasperated sigh. Others completely trust Emi néni’s taste and ask her to pick the right pair of glasses for them. 

The business is going through hard times, with competition fierce in addition to the effects of the economic crisis. “Nowadays, customers want to pay five forints for 25 forint value,” complains Emi néni. She stresses that there is no haggling in her shop. “The business survives today, but what tomorrow brings is tomorrow’s problem,” she notes.

Emi néni has already buried three of her employees. One of them had looked after his sick wife for years, but “the heart of this strong man finally gave out under the strain”, as she puts it. The wife is still alive, Emi néni notes. Another employee died young after being exposed to the effects of the Chernobyl disaster. 

Succession planning is already in place. Emi néni used to be a 100% owner of the business, but now she has a partner who will inherit the shop “I am at an advanced age and I do not want the shop to close,” she says. The partner is a fellow optician, but not a relative. “Doing business with a stranger is often much easier than with a relative.” 

From trainee to owner

Emi néni was born the fifth and youngest child of her schoolmaster father and housewife mother in 1916. After World War I, the malnourished little girl was transferred to the house of a rich grain merchant in Belgium and later to the care of a widow in Switzerland through a relief organization. When one evening she mentioned that she missed her family, the widow invited her siblings over for the last three months of her stay. On her return to Hungary four and a half years later, she spoke Hungarian with a strong accent. 

The young girl gave up her dream of becoming an artist in order to start making money as soon as possible. She began working in Libál’s as a trainee in 1937, when she was only 21. Back then the shop sold compasses, barometers and binoculars, as well as glass eyes in various colors and sizes all the way from Schwarzwald, the Black Forest. At the time, there was big demand for glass eyes due to accidents suffered by manual workers, such as lumberjacks, as well as from those injured by wartime scatter bombs. Emi néni worked her way up to be an optician and later a co-owner of the shop. 

During World War II, Emi néni was badly wounded after three stories worth of debris collapsed on top of her in a bomb shelter. Her hearing was seriously damaged and she had to learn to walk and talk again. The store was practically destroyed during the bombings. In 1952, the shop, along with its entire stock of glass eyes and various tools and instruments, was nationalized. All Emi néni could keep were her license and some parts and components.

The Libál family

Compass maker Antony Libál, the so-called ‘Circle Meister’, moved to Budapest from what is now the Czech Republic three years after the great flood of 1841, allegedly at the invitation of the Hungarian statesman Ferenc Deák. Famous architects, such as Miklós Ybl and Ödön Lechner, used his compasses when they designed their beautiful palaces. His first shop was located somewhere near the famous Hungarian restaurant Mátyás Pince at the foot of the Elizabeth Bridge.

Libál moved to a new location in Veres Pálné utca in the 1850s. The shop, which was registered at the court in 1877, was visited by various celebrities of the day, such as Ferenc Deák, playwright Imre Madách, poets Sándor Petőfi and János Arany, and well-known Hungarian doctors including Ignác Hirschler, Gáspár Lippai and Ignác Semmelweis, the ‘savior of mothers’.

Libál had five children: Lajos, Erzsébet, Imre, Rózsi and Ilonka. Three became opticians. The Libál family had altogether seven shops in Budapest. When Lajos Libál died in around 1930, his sisters, Rózsi and Ilona, and his brother Imre inherited the shop.