Growth and evolution of the specialty camera store

1881 - George Eastman incorporated the Eastman Dry Plate Company.

1882 - George Carl Dury (right) and brother Henry  opened Dury’s in Nashville. It started as a rubber stamp outlet but quickly added  photographic supplies to its line.

This was in the day of dry plates. Eastman had begun to manufacture them on a small scale in 1880. Originally, cameras had to be loaded and unloaded in a darkroom. Dury’s had one. They apparently became one of Eastman's first eight authorized dealers. George and Henry are gone, but Dury's now has three stores in the Nashville area, including a 15,000 square foot super store.

1885 - Eastman introduced flexible film and the flexible film holder. Now photography was available to everyone, not just the photo geek who was willing to struggle with wet plates and portable darkrooms.

1891 - Robert C. Dodd founded Dodd Camera in Cleveland, Ohio as an art and drawing supply and camera store. Mr. Dodd is no longer with us, but today there are 17 Dodd Camera and Video Stores still going strong.

1894 - Ball Photo was founded in Asheville, NC. It's still going strong.

1899 - Albert Flesch founded Central Camera in Chicago. The third generation is now operating it, and the current president is Albert D. Flesch.

1918 -  Edwin B. Shutan (pronounced shoe-tan) opened his camera store to serve the growing needs of Chicago's photographic enthusiasts. With 3 generations of family ownership, Shutan has a long history of stability and pride of service.

1918 - Benjamin Ritz began Ritz Camera Centers as a one-man portrait studio. Today there are about 1,000 stores, still going strong, under the leadership of Benjamin's nephew David M. Ritz.

1924 - Oscar Barnack's first Leica introduced the 35mm film format that remains the standard of the photo world to this day.

1927 - Peter N. Sandrian, Sr., opened the Sandrian Camera Shop in Morristown, NJ. Mr. Sandrian is gone, but son Peter N. Sandrian, Jr. and the stores (now 2 of them) are still going strong, with help from the third generation.

1945 - The end of the Second World War saw more specialty camera stores than ever come into being. 

Click Camera Shops, Inc. was started by Robert and Rose Adler, in Springfield Ohio. The original store was located at 45-47 West High Street, downtown Springfield where the Adler's later started Tru-Foto, Inc. As Tru-Foto started to grow, the Adlers expanded operations. In 1962, Tru-Foto built a new processing plant in Dayton, Ohio, and in 1963, Mr. Adler sold Click Camera to Edward and Irene Klaben. The sixties and seventies saw great growth for Click Camera, while the Adlers went on to develop the MotoFoto concept.

Many veterans came home to the USA and opened up a photo studio. Some figured that if they had a Kodak franchise they could buy their film directly and save money. Without planning, they slipped from being photography studios to being photo retailers. 

Stock was hard to get, but when retailers received a shipment of almost anything they could plan on selling it at full list price.

Among those returning was Baltimore lawyer Ben Cooper. With his bother Harry he founded what was to become one of the best run family specialty stores in the history of the industry.

Here's how his widow, Sarah Cooper, describes the founding of Camera Mart:

"My husband Ben was a struggling lawyer and camera enthusiast when World War II began. While he was stationed overseas in Guadalcanal, his brother Harry sent him film whenever possible and suggested starting a photographic supplies' business when the war ended. In Baltimore, in 1945, Ben and Harry opened the Camera Mart for fellow hobbyists.

"Stock was hard to get since Eastman was not yet ready to supply new stores. When a shipment of scarce cameras and film arrived at the old drug store across the street, the newcomers rushed to buy whatever they could for resale.

"Staff in the early days consisted of a local youth who didn't know much and me (who knew even less), to supervise him. We longed for the day when we could stock little yellow boxes of film and display many cameras from Kodaks to Leicas. Fifty-five years later, the Camera Mart is one of the last of the old time camera shops and is still owned and managed by the Cooper family."

Ben and Harry Cooper shared their skills with industry insiders by their frequent columns in Photo Weekly.

Today grandson Matthew Cooper is still at the reins of the business.

Sarah Cooper in Cooper's Camera Mart, Baltimore

1946 - Jimmy Abramson founded Madison Photo Shop in Madison, NJ. He's gone, but Madison PhotoPlus is still going strong.

1947 - Al Peters founded Peters Camera Shop in Bergenfield, NJ. He's gone, but the store is still going strong.

1948 - Dr. Edwin Land's first production Polaroid camera, the Model 95, went on sale at Jordan Marsh in Boston for $89.75. At the MPFDA (original name of the Photo Marketing Association) convention, the buzz was that Eastman Kodak would be in big trouble - that those sepia prints would take over the entire photo industry. Polaroid is still here, and so is Kodak…in 2008 Polaroid announced that all instant film would be discontinued.
1950 - Leon Hirsch founded Millburn Camera Shop in Millburn, NJ. He's gone, but the store is still going strong.

1950s - Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Wards offered huge selections of photo equipment to the public. In 1958 they each offered photo equipment catalogs in excess of 100 pages! Specialty camera dealers feared they'd soon be run out of business, but many kept on providing personal service and grew even stronger.

1954 - Pentax single lens reflex cameras came to the United States, initially as Sears' house brand "Tower"

1955 - Wayne Camera (NJ) was started by Bill Orkulsky. He's gone but the store is still going strong with Joel Lebowitz completing 20 years at the helm.

1956 - Noble's Camera Shop of Hingam, Mass. was founded by Warren Noble. It's still going strong under the direction of his son, Brian S. Noble

1957 -Camera Land in New York City was founded 1957 by Alfred Schlessinger and Arnold Rothstein. Ed Paymer bought into the operation in 1974. They're gone, but Camera Land is still going strong under the direction of Ed Paymer's son Joel.

1960s - Mail order advertising became big. Companies like Olden and 47th Street Photo dominated the photo magazines and the Sunday New York Times. Local specialty camera dealers feared they'd soon be run out of business, but many kept on providing personal service and grew even stronger.

Highway discount stores such as E. J. Korvettes and Two Guys offered photo gear at discount. Specialty camera dealers feared they'd soon be run out of business, but many kept on providing personal service and grew even stronger.

1974 - The Canon AE-1 was introduced. For the first time SLR photography became really accessible to the masses, not just the photo geek. The "golden age of the camera store" began. 

1974 -Chuck Wolf left the Ritz Camera family business and opened his first 9 stores under the Wolf Camera name. By 2001 the organization had grown to about 700 stores. Overexpansion brought the business to bankruptcy and it is now part of the Ritz organization. Wolf continued as a vice-president of sales and in 2004 left to form his own marketing firm

1979 - Japan Camera in Canada opened their first minilab, possibly the first to be opened in North America. Industry giants thought it was a fad, that few customers would really want fast service when they could get their pictures in a few days or a week…

1970s - Major department stores such as Bambergers (now a part of Macy's) and J. C. Penney offered photo gear at discount. Specialty camera dealers feared they'd soon be run out of business, but many kept on providing personal service and grew even stronger.

Catalog houses such as Value House and Consumer Distributors offered photo gear at discount. Specialty camera dealers feared they'd soon be run out of business, but many kept on providing personal service and grew even stronger.

1980s - Franchised camera stores and minilab chains ran rampant. Remember CameraAmerica and Gene Barry Photolabs? Industry analysts said that film was dead and video would replace it altogether. Specialty camera dealers feared they'd soon be run out of business, but many kept on providing personal service and grew even stronger.

1981 - Gary Grinnaker opened The Photo Express from scratch in South Dakota. He's still there, and the store is still going strong. It's best known as "that photo store cleverly hidden in the Kirkwood Mall."

1990s - Industry analysts started saying the film was dead and that digital photography would replace it altogether. Specialty camera dealers feared they'd soon be run out of business, but many kept on providing personal service and grew even stronger.

Megastores such as Wal-Mart and Target offered photo gear at deep, deep discounts. Electronic marketers such as Best Buy and Circuit City got into the act. Specialty camera dealers feared they'd soon be run out of business, but many kept on providing personal service and grew even stronger.

2000 - Industry analysts said that Eastman Kodak wasn't making a speedy-enough conversion to the new digital profit model and that companies like Ofoto.com and Zing.com would take over the photo finishing business. Specialty camera dealers feared they'd soon be run out of business, but many kept on providing personal service and grew even stronger.

By the end of that same year, many of the on-line photo services were on the ropes, having discovered that you can't make money giving away your only product.

2010 - Industry analysts started saying the film was dead and that memory-enhancement technology would replace it altogether. Specialty camera dealers feared they'd soon be run out of business, but many kept on providing personal service and grew even stronger.

This time line is presented in a tongue-in-cheek vein. I don't mean to imply that operating a specialty camera store is a sure thing - far from it - but it's still possible to operate a specialty camera store, be competitive, and make a living.