In a comment to the previous post, "Unbound" wrote:
Is your essay a simile for what is happening to mom-and-pop camera stores? Or should I use past tense, since they virtually don't exist any more? Let's see, I can buy a DSLR for $2500 online, or I can buy the same camera for $2750 locally, plus 8% tax, for a total of about $500 more just for buying locally. Call me what you may, but $500 is a lot of money for no real gain. And small stores can not really survive on small ticket items unless they have lots of volume to go with it. Businesses such as small camera stores, small bookstores, etc. cannot compete in a modern business environment that is driven by price and convenience. They have to adapt or perish...in the age of eBay and Amazon and Adorama, the viability of these small business models is questionable at best, and they are almost guaranteed to disappear as their owners give up, or more likely retire (owners of this kind of business tend to be old).
Ah, the poor neighborhood camera store. Unbound is right—they're mostly gone now, pleasant memories for those of us old enough to remember the cluttered interiors, the fantastic jumble of dusty "new-old" stock, the crusty owners with their encyclopedic brains from whom you could draw a wealth of wonderful stories if you took the time. I miss the camera stores of my youth, although I probably also romanticize them.
The camera stores were hit from virtually every angle. I suppose there was once a time in the far-off past when they could prosper by selling cameras, but the big monthly magazines with their endless pages of discount mail-order ads in the back took care of that. At least, if a store couldn't make a profit on an SLR body or a manufacturer-branded lens, SLRs required many accessories, and those were profitable. Then came the point-and-shoot revolution in the 1980s—cameras that not only did not require accessories, they didn't accept them (remember trying to use filters on your point-and-shoot?) So, with the falling price of processing stations, camera stores turned to on-site film processing, a nice business that was quickly poached by every corner drugstore chain and grocery store, not to mention the also-ill-fated parking lot film drop-off kiosks. Many stores depended for years on sales to local students in darkroom classes, although I can't imagine there's much future in that if indeed it's still going on at all (I don't have a handle on whether schools are still teaching darkroom-based photography or not). In desperation, the camera stores took to leaning on used equipment as a profit center, albeit one of greatly diminished expectation. And then...along came eBay, which is essentially a thousand used camera stores in one. It cut the legs out from under that business. What's left for the specialty camera store to make a profit on? Basically, readymade frames and blank albums, and perhaps camera bags.
The last neighborhood "camera store" I visited in a neighborhood not my own had a nice selection of digicams along one wall, and of course the cards and bags you'd need if you bought one, and there was a small forest of tripods sprouting in one corner, but the main part of the store was entirely comprised of what could be described as scrapbooking supplies.
So where, then, do you go to get your hands on the actual cameras you think you might want to buy? The most common ones are not too difficult to find, but esoterica is almost impossible.
One of my persistent fantasies is a photography museum that would also function as a "tryout" center for cameras of every description. Picture a largish building with attractive displays of historical cameras of all sorts, as well as generous permanent and rotating displays of historical and contemporary photographs. But as an adjunct to that, the "museum" would also stock every current camera on the market (many of them, hopefully, provided by the manufacturers). I picture a building with a rooftop garden that has several permanent "sets" of various kinds, and perhaps models on duty, with protected overhangs as well as well-lit interior studios for rainy days. Admission for half a day might be $20, but for that price, attendees could sign out whatever camera they wanted to try, for as long as they wanted to try it. So for your $20 admission fee, you could look at all of the exhibits, but you could also sign out the model of camera you might be interested in, put your own card or film in it, and take it to the rooftop garden for a shooting session. After half an hour or an hour you'd probably have a decent idea what you thought of it, and you'd be able to take your own sample pictures home with you.
The problem with such an idea would be giving sufficient numbers of patrons access to it (and, looked at from the opposite direction, attracting sufficient numbers of patrons for it to be viable). For this reason, I've imagined it being a shuttle-bus ride away from O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. Interested hobbyists who weren't local could presumably plan layovers that would allow them to take in the museum once every year or two.
I think this is slightly more than just a fantasy, but definitely something less than a business plan. It's probably only viable in the fertile region of my imagination. But if I ever win the lotto, please count on spending a pleasant day at a photographer's Mecca like the one I'm describing, won't you?