For the first time that anyone can remember there is a retail shop run by and for amateur astronomers selling telescopes and astronomy gear in the City of Seattle. Cloud Break Optics opened quietly in Ballard a couple of weeks ago and is gearing up for a grand opening celebration later this month.
Cloud Break Optics is owned and operated by Stephanie Anderson and Matt Dahl, longtime friends and Colorado transplants who got their start in the business working at a telescope store in the Denver area. They ended up in Seattle because of astronomy, education, and love.
Both have some impressive credentials. Anderson, who got interested in space after reading an Isaac Asimov book as a kid, majored in math and physics and taught at Metropolitan State University and the University of Colorado Denver. She was working as a guide on a solar eclipse tour in 2009 when she met her future husband, a Seattle resident.
“Our first date was three weeks in China and Tibet,” Anderson said. They started up a long-distance relationship between Denver and Seattle but, one December when Anderson’s adjunct contract at Metropolitan ran out, she didn’t renew and moved to Seattle.
Dahl received his first telescope for Christmas when he was 17, and was hooked after one look at the Moon. Later Anderson sold him his first larger telescope. He started college as a music major, but eventually switched to physics.
“Basically it’s been all downhill from there,” he joked. Dahl did research on extrasolar planets and, after college, got a job at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder and worked on the Kepler mission. In 2012 his wife was admitted to a master’s program at Bastyr University in Kenmore, and they moved to Seattle. It was a bit easier having a friend, Anderson, already in town.
An astronomy hiatus
Dahl and Anderson gave up on astronomy for a while after moving to Seattle; after all, we have our reputation as a cloudy and rainy place. But a trip to the Rocky Mountain Star Stare last summer reignited their interest. They went to the Table Mountain Star Party as well last year, and some old ideas resurfaced.
“Throughout our friendship we’d always kicked around this idea of owning a telescope store,” Dahl said. Late last summer, they decided to do it. Anderson explained there were two main factors that led to their leap.
“One was the realization that you really don’t actually have to go that far in the wintertime in order to have a nice, clear sky,” she said. They figured out local weather patterns and learned that things were better in Eastern Washington. “We realized we really weren’t traveling further than we were in Colorado to get a good, dark sky.”
The second was a practical matter that sprung from their renewed interest in observing.
“We really didn’t have a place we could go locally,” Anderson said, to make a quick pick-up of a key piece of gear they needed for an observing session. “We thought there would be a niche to fill.”
A big part of that niche is their personal knowledge and experience, according to Dahl.
“We each have hauled many a telescope from one location to another, and observed with different types of telescopes, imaged with different types of telescopes,” Dahl said. “We have a slew of knowledge in our back pockets. A lot of astronomy is getting that jump start from somebody who had done it before.”
“If your first observing experience is a pleasant one because you know how to operate your telescope and you have an instrument that will show you what you think it will show you, you are far more likely to stay in the hobby,” he added.
Anderson noted that sometimes the personal touch is the only way to go.
“A German equatorial mount is very confusing to someone who has never seen one before,” she said. “It’s almost impossible to learn on your own. You need someone to show you and explain what the theory is behind it.”
The hands-on approach is important. As we talked about their plans for the shop we discussed astrophotography and the challenges I’ve had getting good photos with my smartphone. We soon had a solar telescope set up in the Cloud Break Optics parking lot and I was taking pics with the help of a nifty phone attachment. You get a better sense for the various telescopes and gear when you can actually see them, touch them, and use them. You just can’t get that experience online.
The challenges of a brick-and-mortar store
Anderson and Dahl recognize that a huge chunk of the sales of astronomy gear these days happens online, and so they are doing Internet sales and shipping globally.
“We have to compete in that market,” Dahl explained. “At the same time we wanted to provide a customer service experience” for people local to the Seattle area.
“We want them to come into the shop, talk to us, give them the advice and the expertise and the knowledge that we have,” he said. “At the same time we can provide as much of that as possible on our website.”
You can follow Cloud Break Optics on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Drop by the shop at 2821 NW Market Street in Ballard, and watch for news of their upcoming grand opening celebration. They’ll be at Table Mountain again next week, this time with their vendor hats on. We expect they’ll work in a little observing as well.