Not too long ago, there were four camera stores in the Iowa City area, catering to a variety of photography needs. But over the years, for a number of different reasons, those businesses began to fade away.
Today, only one remains.
That location, University Camera, has still managed to keep going despite having to bridge the growing demand for digital with the dwindling, yet still persistent, demand for film. This in a world unkind, where Internet sellers like Amazon and Adorama, enjoying sales tax free status, can dominate the sale of cameras; and where a storied giant of film, Kodak, recently filed for bankruptcy to shed some of its troubled assets.
Roger Christian, the store's owner, said that the key to survival these days is building up a relationship with customers.
"Theoretically, small retail is dead, Amazon owns the world, Google owns the world, and the sales tax issue rules all," Christian said. "As a small retailer, you either service your customers well, or you are gone."
"There are no secrets, there is no killer app, everybody is working to survive."
How the store keeps going
Christian said University Camera services those customers in three ways:
One by providing a wealth of knowledge to help customers make their purchase in a sometimes confusing world of photography. This includes offering to help make camera purchases, which are then mailed the next day to the store.
Two, providing all of those niche services that used to be carried by their competitors all in one place.
Three, offering on-site printing, including what Christian referred to as "the finest color printing in the known universe."
"Pretty much anything that you want to have done we can do here, unless it's really esoteric," he said.
A good example of the wide breadth of services University Camera still offers is the development of Ektachrome slide film. Christian said it has been estimated by the Fujiflm company that less than 150 locations exist in the United States that still develop this film. University Camera is the only one left in Iowa.
"It has become very, very rare," Christian said.
Women to the rescue
Also helping to support the store: the arrival of women to photography.
Christian said that in what was formerly a male dominated field, it is getting rarer and rarer to see a man at arrive at their counter. He said his primary customers are women, some who want help, others who want to see what they're buying before it arrives to them online, others who want prints of the shots they've taken.
He can't explain the phenomenon, he's just glad it exists.
"I'm not going to say we wouldn't be here if women weren't coming, but it would be a whole lot quieter here," he said. "Women have taken photography in an entirely new direction."
The stubborn survival of film
The building that contains University Camera at 4 S. Dubuque St., is old. Christian said it was originally built in 1895 by Freyauph's Leather Goods, the original tenant, which stayed in business until 1970 when the space was converted into University Camera. There are fossils visible in the limestone that forms the building's foundation.
Ethernet wires are snaked all through the building, connecting new to old, networking computer workstations to the digital printing area nearby and the heavy duty dark room setup in the building's basement.
Christian said this setup allows them to have maximum flexibility whether they are printing digital or film images, producing audio/video transfers, or developing film. It also allows film negatives to be transferred into high quality digital form, so people can share their images the way most people do these days -- online.
Christian said despite its fall in popularity, film sales haved stabilized at a lower level, what is referred to by the industry as "the long tail," as in a line slowly fading to the ground, yet never hitting the bottom. Kodak, referred to earlier, actually introduced new types of film recently, and the departments it is shedding are its unsuccessful digital camera division.
He said film is being kept alive by older photographers, who refuse to switch to digital alternatives, and by a band of young rebels who shoot with broken Chinese medium format cameras known as Holgas.
Holgas are almost the antithesis of the breakneck digital world, where constantly improving cameras lead to this year's hot model being obsoleted just a few years after its release. In contrast, Holgas are cheap, and although they can produce fine images, defects in their construction can produce uniquely distorted images.
The difference is, seeing exactly what happened to the film, rather than seeing the image the instant after it is taken, is part of the fun.
"With film, the mystery returns," Christian said.
Also in contrast to digital, Christian said, film slows the user down, makes them focus and watch for the perfect moment. He said for some photographers, this slower pace is enjoyable.
"Film teaches patience, you have to wait for something to happen," Christian said.
A helluva hole
Christian, 65, said that despite the flagging popularity of film, he feels like his little camera store could go on indefinitely. The problem is, that he can't go on indefinitely.
"You just ride the wave as long as you can," Christian said. "For now everything is kind of cruising along."
He said that he may be looking to retire within the next five years. When that happens, he said he doesn't know what will become of the store if no one steps in to take over. With his operation being too expensive to replicate from scratch with razor thin margins, the business could, too, fade away, without anything to replace it.
"It would leave a helluva hole," Christian said.
To read more about University Camera's services, visit its website here.