I went to the Corcoran School of Art for "college" (it was called the Corcoran School in those days, and for a century prior, and I think of it that way despite the new inflated term—in today's America, every school is a college, and every college is a university. The unhappy universities have nothing more pompous to promote themselves to. Hey, if maintenance engineers [old term: janitors] and sales associates [old term: sales clerks*] can do it, why not schools?). It's located at Seventeenth Street and New York Avenue in Washington, D.C., a couple of blocks from the White House. Like generations of photo students before me—and undoubtedly since—the local supplier of choice was Penn Camera, on E Street, on the other side of the White House complex plus a handful of blocks. I made the walk between the two places a hundred times. It was a classic "camera store" of the type I once dearly loved and now am grateful to have known before they disappeared: smelling of hypo, chock full of equipment new and old, forests of enlargers, tripods, and lights, with a bustling camera counter staffed by mostly older guys who were always interesting and knowledgable, if also possibly a little eccentric in some way or other, bless 'em.
Yesterday the following notice appeared on the Penn Camera website:
Penn Camera Exchange Inc., with eight retail stores in the Washington DC metropolitan area, and fixture [sic] since 1953, regretfully announced on Wednesday January 4th 2012 that it has filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code. Five locations will be closed immediately and we will hold a special clearance sale at our E Street, Rockville and Tysons locations.
A dramatic decline in sales performance during the preceding holiday period has precipitated this action.
It has been an honor and a privilege to serve the photographic needs of this community for nearly sixty years. We extend our deepest gratitude to our many employees and wish for them a smooth transition.
The guy from Penn Camera I knew best during my school years was called Charlie. He was a stocky, unsmiling, tough-looking old fellow who was apparently blind as a bat: he wore thick "Coke bottle" glasses well down on his nose, and, when he looked straight at you, the top bar of the frames of his glasses would be exactly in front of his eyeballs. But he'd been a pro for years and he knew literally more than he could impart. Every question or request for knowledge or advice was like dipping a bucket in the sea.
A fond farewell and hearty thanks to all the good folks at Penn Camera now and in years past.
I've said several times already that one of the things I'm most grateful for in photography is that I got to see the beginning of the digital age, and also the end of the film age. There is probably no better age for a enthusiastic observer of photography to be than just my age. Still, there's a lot of sadness associated with the passing the antediluvian ways and days. I was reminded of that not only be Penn Camera's demise but by the ever-lowering buzzards circling once-great Kodak, proud behemoth of the golden age of American industrialism and once the bluest of blue-chip stocks. Its stock price fell to a measly 44¢ the other day an a prominent article in the WSJ signalled that Chapter 11 looms ever larger.
From the article:
...The company was the Apple Inc. or Google Inc. of its time. Robert Shanebrook, 64 years old, who started at the company in 1967 and was most recently world-wide product manager for professional photographic film, recalls young talent traipsing through Kodak's sprawling corporate campus. At lunch, they would crowd the auditorium to watch a daily movie at an on-site theater. Other employees would play basketball on the company courts.
"We had this self-imposed opinion of ourselves that we could do anything, that we were undefeatable," Mr. Shanebrook said.
Times change. Ring in the new, ring out the old. 'Tis the season.
(Thanks to Bruce Katz, Pak-Ming Wan, and several others)
*I fully expect to walk into a big box store 20 years from now and be approached by a young man wearing a polyester vest and a nametag that says AIDEN / TOI who will greet me with, "Hi, I'm Aidan, and I'll be your Titan of Industry today. Is there anything I can help you find?" But maybe that's fantasy—not the name, just the idea that you'll actually get offered help in a big box store.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Len Salem: "Actually I think there is more help available now than I used to find as a young man 50–60 years ago. While there were and still are a very few shining exceptions, the majority of stores that I frequented as I rotated through my changing hobby cycle (stamp collecting, model making, amateur radio, photography, etc.) were very dismissive of the poorer, younger enthusiast and often quite intimidating. They knew I had too little money to spend to justify their attention.
"Nowadays the internet is, generally, more democratic. Information is very readily available and probably in total as reliable, or more so, as that gleaned from the individuals who manned the oldtime stores.
"So the former association between supplier and informer is ceasing to exist and we now have suppliers whose expertise is in competitively priced logistic services and web sites whose expertise is expertise. It may not actually be a bad thing. And finally, I do recommend anyone with any special interest to join a club, go on workshops, etc., and mingle with their wiser co-enthusiasts away from the internet. These non-commercial gatherings (non-commercial other than for the organisers who may be amateurs or may be trying to do it for a living) are where you learn what you didn't know you didn't know.
"My conclusion therefore is that the goal of a tripartite combination of excellence in distribution companies, excellence in knowledge bases, and excellence in real world enthusiast groups is actually welcome progress, sad though the demise of old friends may be for some."
Featured Comment by Ruby: "Just last night I was reading The Time Machine (on my Kindle, which I got because a camera and a real book make my bag too heavy) and the Time Traveler was lamenting he had not brought 'a Kodak' with him. No need for the word 'camera.' How times have changed indeed."
Featured Comment by The Lazy Aussie: "Eastman looks like he's thinking, 'Oh yeah, right, don't take the film out in the light. Whoops.'"
Featured Comment by Adam Lanigan: "I originally read 'needs' as 'nerds' here: 'It has been an honor and a privilege to serve the photographic needs of this community for nearly sixty years.' Fair enough, I guess. When should I start stockpiling 400TX?"
Mike replies: If that time hasn't arrived, it's very, very close.
Featured Comment by Jim Bullard: "It is a shame that the vast majority of the current generation of photographers will never experience one of those camera stores. They used to be in every city, often more than one camera store, carrying competing brands. Yes, I can get everything I want via the Internet but it isn't the same as wandering in that forest of tripods and enlargers while chemical smells wafted by. Count me as one of the nostalgic old guys."
Featured Comment by Jeff Hohner: "Linden Photo in London, Ontario was such a place. A tiny, old fashioned store. It was so packed with stock it was hard to move around in, boxes stacked right to the ceiling atop the tall display cases that lined the three interiors walls of the place. A temple of gear and supplies.
"In the early 1980s when I shopped there, it was always busy, the counters full of orders assembled for delivery: little piles of boxes of paper and film and cables each topped with a pink invoice. What counter space remained was cluttered with the open boxes of cameras being shown to customers. There was always so much activity that the treasures in the display cases below were obscured and secondary. The place was not about browsing and dreaming, it was about buying and using; it was a pro shop. There was no room to gawk. Those without a purpose at the counter were quickly displaced by an assertive, silent invitation from one of the proprietors to the next customer. They would raise their chin, 'You. Next.'
"The store was owned and run by a pair of stern brothers originally from Germany. I think they had only one other employee. The older brother clearly had status. He showed the cameras and discussed repairs. He was lean and dapper. He spoke quietly and slowly with a considered, non-committal manner. 'Yessss...zis is true...but,' he would often say because, as we all know, photographic considerations always involve tradeoffs, and as a responsible supplier he would not sell unless he was satisfied his customer was informed. If you threatened to buy against his advice, he might tilt his head with reluctant acceptance, 'You have not convinced me, but if you must....'
"His brother had the opposite character. He was stocky and slightly unkempt. He whirled around the store, grabbing items for people, completing sales and generally trying to take up the slack for his slow-moving brother. He didn't wear a sport jacket like his brother because he was too hot from running around the store! He spoke gruffly and to the point, 'Out of stock. Tuesday at the earliest. Anything else?' I liked him a lot.
"I was 18 and my ticket to enter this magical place was the account number of the small government office where I worked as a photographer and printer. I was in heaven. The chemistry I bought was pedestrian but I still felt like a pro carrying things like 200-sheet boxes of paper out of that store, items I could never afford for my own darkroom."
Featured Comment by Karl Knize: