Guest Post written by Steve Rosenblum
The other day I was driving north on US23 towards Ann Arbor and home. On the right a large billboard flashed by advertising CameraMall, a new camera store in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan. I blinked my eyes, turned down the music, and thought that perhaps I had just hallucinated. A new camera store in Ann Arbor? No way! Yesterday I parked my car and walked up Washington Street, behind the legendary Michigan Theater, and, sure enough, there it was—a camera store. I could not have been more surprised if I had seen a knight of the realm riding a unicorn up the street.
Ann Arbor is a medium-sized Midwestern city that is home to the University of Michigan and its >40,000 students as well as a highly educated and diverse population and a complement of businesses. It’s about as sophisticated as a Midwestern town gets short of places like Chicago. It has a highly regarded Arts school, a vibrant arts community, and lots of photographers. Yet our last real camera store closed years ago. The closest we've had to a camera store for the last decade is Best Buy.
I entered and, indeed, this was not a hallucination. Behind the main counter there was a wall display of all the major flavors of cameras and lenses—Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, Sigma and others. To the left was a wall display of old film cameras for sale. The display case was full of a wide variety of new lenses. The countertop has a newly placed line of Ona bags. Tripods occupy the center of the floor. And, on the side is an entire wall of film…yes, film, of many varieties.
I was greeted by Desmond Kolean-Burley, one of the co-founders of the store. I asked him (in so many words), "have you stopped taking your meds? Have you been reading Don Quixote obsessively? How is that you have opened a new camera store when everyone else has closed?" It turns out that CameraMall started a few years ago as an Internet camera business selling as an independent merchant through Amazon. The success of that business provided Desmond and associates with the seed money to start the bricks and mortar store. He has wanted to open a store in Ann Arbor for a few years, but retail space here is in very short supply and rents are expensive. The location of the store is a block from campus and the main commercial district, but is not on one of the main commercial streets, likely making the space more attainable.
Desmond told me that having the ongoing internet business established and successful provides a measure of protection for the store, as he has a means of easily selling off merchandise that is either not selling well in the store or is near the end of its model cycle. He also believes that there is a real unfulfilled demand for photographic goods and services here, especially if it is coupled with excellent service and competitive prices. The prices at the store are the same as Amazon and other online retailers. So, the customer gets the same price, and can actually get the camera in their hands, and get expert advice at the same time. I know…what a concept. I felt as though I had stepped back in time to 1990! Desmond tells me the initial sales at the store have exceeded his expectations.
They initially carried a small selection of film, but demand has been brisk and so an extensive selection is now offered. They have purchased a large format Epson printer, and a C-41 film processor, which they hope to have up and running very soon. Depending upon demand he is considering adding 35mm B&W film processing. Scanning, photo restoration, and video digitizing services are planned in the near future. Charles Samuels, a recent University of Michigan art school graduate, has been hired to help out. He tells me he is a dedicated film shooter and darkroom printer. He asked me where he could get his M3 focus mechanism adjusted! I walked out of that store with a huge grin on my face, and I’m still grinning!
Of interest, last year, Literati, a new retail bookstore, also successfully launched in downtown Ann Arbor, rising from the ashes of failed hometown book giant Borders. Their opening seemed equally implausible, but they seem to be doing quite well. A café has been added upstairs. Perhaps the obituary on service-oriented small hometown businesses was written prematurely? I certainly hope so….
©2014 by Steve Rosenblum, all rights reserved
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
Earl Dunbar: "Wow, this is such good news! I heard part of a news piece on the radio (remember that?) the other day about how savvy, major online sellers are establishing local bricks and mortar stores. Yes, there are certain goods that people want to touch, feel and try before making a purchase. As a smaller but fairly artistic community, I'm hoping such an establishment comes to Rochester (NY)—we have a grand total of one smallish camera store left."
Pat Trent: "A big thumbs up for the film display! Next should be darkroom supplies, etc. More power to Desmond."
Kenneth Wajda: "I always seek out camera stores in my business travels. Once, in Madison, Wisconsin, I said to Siri, 'Find me a camera store' She replied, 'What's wrong with the camera you're holding' But little does she know how wonderful it is to see high-end gear and a delicious used case!"