VOL. 11 | NO. 32 | Saturday, August 11, 2018
By Michael Waddell
As owner of Tharp’s Optical Boutique in Midtown, Dr. Linda Tharp has run her private optometry practice from the same 1720 Madison Ave. location the past 27 years. Despite the fact that she has no street frontage, her business has grown over the years strictly through word-of-mouth and referrals.
Recently she was reappointed to the State Board of Optometry by Gov. Bill Haslam after she became the first woman (and the first black woman) appointed to the board in the early 2010s. She also currently serves as the optometric representative on the state’s opioid committee, which is searching for solutions to the opioid epidemic in Tennessee.
Growing up on a farm in Oakland, Tennessee, in one of the poorest counties (Fayette) in the state, Tharp was encouraged to keep her career goals simple, with an emphasis placed on teaching but little else.
Optometrist Dr. Linda Tharp has run a minority-owned private practice in Midtown for 27 years. Gov. Bill Haslam recently reappointed her to the state Board of Optometry. (Memphis News/Jim Weber)
“We played outside quite a bit, but I didn’t get to play as much as my siblings because I did some reading for my great-grandmother who couldn’t read because she had some visual needs that were not met,” Tharp said. Her great-grandmother was in her 80s then and had never learned to read or write.
The experience gave Tharp a love for reading, but also the motivation to help others see better, read better, and protect and improve their vision.
“I’ve enjoyed it here (in Midtown). It’s been kind of a mixed setting in the building over the years, with internal medicine, dentistry, a family practitioner and an allergist at one time or another,” Tharp said.
“It worked out quite well as an inner word-of-mouth referral network. It was quite helpful, especially when I was starting out.”
For many years, she operated the business by herself and now has an associate who helps out at least once a week.
“I hope that develops into something more in the future,” Tharp said.
Through the years, the business of optometry has changed dramatically.
Tharp performs a routine eye exam on Vera Winters (right) during an appointment at Tharp's office on Friday, July 27. Tharp has run a minority-owned private practice in Midtown for 27 years. (Memphis News/Jim Weber)
“When I started out, I knew that I couldn’t compete with the large operations, and I knew I had to find a niche and I had to find it soon or I would have to close,” she said. “That niche was just to make sure I was doing the most thorough, best eye exam you could ever have and people come back without having to advertise because I did not have the advertising dollars to do that.”
Today she enjoys seeing the children of some her earlier patients coming in for eye exams.
She describes her practice as more of a medical practice because she could not compete with other operations on pricing for optical goods.
“I focus on the diabetics, the hypertensive, those with glaucoma, and those who are on medications that require medical management for their eyes,” she said. “That’s how I practice, and it’s worked for me for years.”
She works in conjunction with many of the local retinal and general surgeons.
Before opening her practice, she graduated from the Illinois College of Optometry and then worked in a very busy ophthalmology setting.
Despite her credentials and experience, Tharp did not always receive support while growing her business. She recalls that many financial institutions were not interested in loaning to women, and minority women in particular.
“As a minority and as a female, that was two strikes against you,” she said. “It was impossible to get a loan to open a practice without having someone to co-sign.”
Her commercial banking relationship changed around five years ago when she was referred to Financial Federal senior vice president Gideon Scoggin, who at the time worked at another institution.
“He looked at me as an individual,” Tharp said. “He was very helpful and open with the banking parts I wasn’t familiar with.”
When Scoggin moved to Financial Federal, Tharp followed him.
“She’s a delight to work with and one of the nicest people I’ve ever done business with,” Scoggin said. “The work we did helped her gain her independence (from a negative personal situation) and focus on her business.”
Tharp has since used Financial Federal for both business services and her personal mortgage, home equity line of credit, and deposit accounts.
When she retires, she hopes to continue her humanitarian work in Nigeria, where she went in April.
“There’s a need in Third World countries for so many things and especially for eye care, and I plan to go back and work in the clinic again,” she said.