Founded in 1968, Soria Mostafa Optics looks like any other optics shop – only standing out because of its impending 50-year anniversary. However, there is something special about it; something that gives a new meaning to the term “Old is Gold”.
Tucked away in a small Bab El Louq street amidst the hustle and bustle of Downtown Cairo, an optics shop near the renowned El Horreya Bar looks deceptively simple from the outside; just like its many counterparts on the same block.
At first glance, the shop seems average, with neatly organized rows of different models and brands. However, once you turn to the left, you will immediately understand what makes Soria Mostafa Optics special, and why its many loyal customers hold it dear to their hearts.
Indicated with a small white sign with the word “Vintage” written in red, rows and rows of authentic vintage glasses are proudly showcased, some of which have been around since as early as the 1950s.
We talked to Emad Refaat El Sherif, optics expert and owner of Soria Mostafa Optics, about his journey in this industry and what drew him to go against the tide; selling vintage glasses at a time when modern styles were the most popular in the country.
El Sherif is the son of the late Soria Mostafa, who founded the shop back in 1968. With their golden anniversary coming up next March, El Sherif could not be prouder of his shop and all that makes it special, recalling its soon-to-be 50-year journey to fame.
How it all Began
“Back in the 1950s and all the way to the early 2000s, we used to buy glasses in bulk; perhaps 10,000 pairs of the same model. With time, more than 60,000 pieces remained unsold, and they had to go into storage,” El Sherif recalls.
The forgotten pairs spent many years in storage, seeming like wasted money. Flash-forward to five years ago: El Sherif decided to visit the warehouse to check out the many varieties of vintage glasses left behind.
He looked through the collection and realized that the glasses were in perfect condition and needed to be sold rather than just thrown away. After spending time sorting through the thousands of pairs, he realized that he had a whopping 2,000 models in large quantities of both prescription and sunglasses.
Because it was evident that those pieces were quite rare and therefore valuable, El Sherif decided to take a chance and showcase his treasures. He set up a little vintage corner in his shop, unsure of whether or not people would want to buy them.
“Some of the models were exceptionally valuable, made from unique material like wood, ebony, ivory, and even shells and cellulose acetate that are no longer used because they are too expensive,” he muses.
Most of the glasses in storage were European, with the lion’s share from Italy, France, Vienna, Germany, Canada and Australia, and only a few from the United States.
Promotion and Customers
“We took a chance, and got very lucky as eventually, vintage styles became trendy, so we began promoting this collection through publications and social media to attract more customers,” he says.
While El Sherif made sure the shop’s Facebook page was in Arabic to attract Egyptian customers, he found that foreigners – along with English-speaking Egyptians – were the ones who were most interested in what his shop had to offer.
“Foreigners respect the value of vintage glasses, despite the fact that the ones they admire were manufactured in their own countries. However, they can’t find these models there anymore because factories have stopped producing them,” he mentions.
Now, Soria Mostafa Optics has a wide fan base, 60 percent of which are foreigners, with Egyptians occupying the remaining 40 percent.
Soria Optics on Screen
Stylists who work on the wardrobes of actors and actresses make it a point to stop by the shop before the taping of a new production.
“More than 20 stylists have come to our shop to pick out glasses for movies, TV shows and commercials,” El Sherif explains.
Sometimes the production in question is not even based on past events, but could involve a few minutes of flashbacks that the stylist wants to portray accurately. The most recent production showcasing the shop’s glasses was the advertisement for the Value Added Tax (VAT), which featured actor Hamdy Al Marghany wearing several types of glasses provided by Soria Mostafa Optics in all his scenes.
“I usually sit with the stylist and talk about the characters they are dressing up; their occupations, personalities and the events they go through and the era they live in,” he says, adding, “They might show me a picture of the actor and what they intend to dress them up in, and we pick frames together accordingly.”
Sometimes, El Sherif has to add prescription lenses to the frames if the actor has weak eyesight, resulting in a lot more than just a prop. The stylists make sure to get more than one frame, in order to have backup options in case the first one breaks, although that has never happened before, according to El Sherif.
While most vintage boutiques offer glasses that might cost you an arm and a leg, the collection at Soria Mostafa Optics can be a lot more wallet-friendly, depending on what you pick. Vintage glasses can cost anywhere between EGP 300 and EGP 3,000. Of course, they can become even more expensive in some rare cases, especially after the devaluation of the Egyptian pound.
“Sometimes, when I run out of a certain model, I look for it in European factories. We know pilots who spend time scouting there, and sometimes they return with one or two pairs. We pay for the pair and the pilot plus customs as well, so a truly rare pair can go up to EGP 4,000,” he explains.
Other Products and Offerings
Even though the shop is mostly known for its vintage collection and high copy specs, Soria Mostafa Optics has a lot more to offer. El Sherif is continually researching and thinking up ways to improve his merchandise, resulting in the creation of several unique types of lenses. They are one of the very few manufacturers of handmade lenses in the country, if not the only ones. “We have a department specifically dedicated to handmade lenses,” El Sherif highlights.
In Egypt, the majority of the stores import the frames and lenses and just assemble them locally.
“Egypt used to have a factory that manufactured lenses from scratch during Abdel Nasser’s era in the early 1960s where it used to import raw materials from abroad, France in particular, and then manufacture it here. Unfortunately, it was later privatized and eventually got shut down,” El Sherif recalls.
Some investors later tried to bring back the local manufacturing process and start a new project, but they had to shut down their operations after illegal smugglers offered optics at half the price; consequently pushing them off the market.
“Sadly, Egypt now has around five different factories for glass and plastic optics, but only for assembling,” he mentions.
El Sherif’s handmade manufacturing process is so impressive and rare that foreigners often come in to watch him work and record videos. He is also the mastermind behind the creation of two very unique types of lenses, the first of which for daytime driving. Resembling the windshields of automobiles, they feature shaded tops and bottoms in order to enable driving during the day despite the harsh sunlight – an innovation particularly needed in an excessively hot climate like that of Egypt.
“These lenses were only offered by Bausch & Lomb in glass, but I kept trying until I managed to formulate the same type of lens but in plastic,” he explains.
The second type of lens is the High Definition (HD); a remarkably unique yellow lens specifically dyed for blocking LED lights when driving at night. El Sherif pointed to a wall filled with many of its prototypes, all featuring different thicknesses depending on the customer’s prescription.
“This type of lens used to come as a size zero. What happened in the past was that people would wear this lens on top of their original glasses, which was not practical at all. I formulated it with dyes in a way that can accommodate different prescription needs; not any yellow lens can give the same effect,” he adds.
At the moment, Soria Mostafa Optics is preparing to showcase some of its treasured glasses at an upcoming annual exhibition. The products set aside are one-of-a-kind and not for sale, one of which is an incredibly valuable American pair from the 1950s. “This pair is now one-of-a-kind. If I sell it, I won’t be able to find another one in the world like it,” El Sherif concludes.
Soria Mostafa Optics is one of those downtown gems that gained popularity among many patrons from around the world, and the numbers make that clear. Starting with 60,000 pairs of vintage optics, the shop is now down to 20,000, continually searching for more to add to its stunning collection.