Camille Colaizzo: Official recognition comes her way

In 1969, after a cross-country, "On the Road" teenage odyssey, Camille Colaizzo stood on upper Queen Anne and vowed she would have a business here someday.

The New York City native felt she had found her inevitable place.

Cut to 2005: Colaizzo's business, Colaizzo Opticians at 1623 Queen Anne Ave. N., is one of 10 winners chosen from 500 nominees for the Mayor's Small Business Award.

What some might call fate, others would call making your own luck through hard work, vision, smarts and pluck.

Orphaned at 9, Colaizzo saw, at an early age, the road ahead: "I knew I would be working for the rest of my life," she said.

Colaizzo, buoyed by her Italian heritage and Big Apple energy, is a vivid, compact woman who looks you in the eye and speaks candidly from the heart.

To be fitted with her fashion-forward frames - ranging from the retro, rhinestone-spangled cat-eyed to austere German steel - can be an exploration of the self.

"No one dishes out false compliments at Colaizzo," writes one online reviewer.

"This kind of purchase is an emotional purchase," Colaizzo notes. "This is as important as your teeth or hair. It's about how you see yourself."

The Small Business Award process is demanding in its detail. Among other things, it's about how businesses see themselves. Nominees write a three-page essay about their business. And they must fill out complete historical financial information. "How much capital did you start with?," for example. Software-money hobbyists and trust-fund dilettantes are downgraded. Nominees are judged on business sense and, as the mayor's letter to the winners states, by their success in "training and employing workers, generating products, services, entertainment, and innovations, and by adding to the distinctive cultures and personality of our neighborhoods."

Margaret Irvine, executive director of the Greater Queen Anne Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter to the mayor's office nominating Colaizzo Opticians for the Small Business Award.

"Camille has a spark, a flair, is a strong creative woman and her business acumen is what has helped her survive the lean years," Irvine wrote of the woman who founded her business on upper Queen Anne in 1989.

Colaizzo has five employees and will be adding a sixth soon. She says she has shown 25-percent revenue growth this year over the prior year. She travels to Europe several times a year to handpick her frames, which range from just under $100 up to $600.

Her shop space is as sleek and futuristic and functionally rational as a Mondrian. A globe spinning in the window bristles with little displays about what's going on the in the world right now. Global warming is one concern. On the counter there's a photograph of her father in military garb, handsome as Tyrone Power.

Colaizzo's husband, Hiroshi Toelken, a master craftsman in lenses and frame design, also crafted the table that occupies center stage. On it rests an etch-a-sketch for those 20somethings who, without a keyboard and computer screen in front of them, just have to have their fingers busy while making crucial buying decisions.

Colaizzo is a proud heretic when it comes to one business essential: She has no Web site.

"People are so inundated with corporations," she says. "They want it reduced to a formula. I'm holding out."

When Colaizzo attends the mayor's awards ceremony at Town Hall on Tuesday evening, Sept. 13, she will be honored as much for doing things her own way and contributing to "the distinctive culture" of upper Queen Anne as for her business acumen.

Individual vision, it appears, still has a place in this increasingly corporate world.

"It can be done," she laughs.

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