The Last Word: My Swan Song

The Last Word: My Swan Song

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A longtime customer came into Chris’ Camera Center to order prints, walking past the sign on the door that reads: “This store has permanently closed.”

He reminisced about the good old days when he’d shoot 1,000 rolls of Kodachrome a month. His processing orders might have been enough to keep an entire specialty camera store afloat. But his career is over, Kodachrome remains only a fond memory and a great song by Paul Simon, and Chris’ Camera Center is a thing of the past.

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Chris Lydle

My customers have hugged me, brought homemade cookies and sympathized with the poor local merchant who couldn’t keep up with online competition and the big-box stores.

But they were wrong! I was still making money—not as much as when I was young and healthy, but enough to continue if I wanted to. Sure, Amazon and B&H cut into my sales, but there’s still a place in the market for the specialist.

I grew up in the greatest industry ever. My involvement started when I was 10 years old, at the Boys Club of East Aurora, New York. Watching those contact prints from my Brownie 127 appear under the amber light had me hooked.

I had after-school jobs in photo shops through high school, met my wife when I was a photographer for our college yearbook, and became a full-time retailer two years after graduation.

When I put up the sign for the first Chris’ Camera Center in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, in 1974, I thought of myself as a “young Turk.” Now I’m an old dinosaur.

Over the years, we had tech changes that kept making picture making more democratic than ever, more accessible to everyone. Eventually that technology became disruptive.

Instamatic drop-in loading made it easy to change film. Automatic exposure began in 1938 but became universal through Polaroid’s advances. Konica added automatic focus to the mix, and the consumer never had it so good.

The Canon AE-1 was a retailer’s dream! We could sell customers dedicated flashes, several lenses, several filters and an unending stream of film and processing. And a few months later they’d buy a power winder (which required a different fitted case).

How did they first see their photos? When they excitedly opened that envelope of double prints at our finishing counter. Film labs were huge buildings, and we were lucky enough to have 24-hour service from the Kodak lab in Fairlawn.

The little yellow-roofed Fotomat buildings—what we called “kiosks”—were our competition. Money rolled in, and the ongoing money from developing and film sales made us feel like we were smarter than we really were.

And then they told us to reinvent ourselves.

With the investment of merely a few hundred thousand, we could have a minilab and provide 60-minute (or less) delivery, too. I drank the Kool-Aid, bought my first minilab, and at heart I became a factory rather than a retailer.

In 1999 I retired, sold my stores in the north and moved to South Carolina. Within three months I opened up a camera store from scratch. I was going to dabble a bit, create “camera store lite” with no lab and a small space. But I couldn’t resist the urge to expand, add labs and more services. I became more active in PMA and the industry, also joining IPI and PRO.

Heady times, I had the fun of committee meetings in Jackson, riding the Chief bus from the airport to 3000 Picture Place with the best and brightest in the industry. I helped craft the CPC program and even garnered a few awards.

At the same time, the death knell for the specialty camera store was waiting in the wings. And it wasn’t Amazon and it wasn’t online competition and it wasn’t digital photography. It was the screen on the Apple iPhone. Overnight consumers stopped printing and were content to “share” their pictures on a little screen or to e-mail them.

But consumers still need us—the special photo dealer—very badly. Most of them just don’t know it. The smart dealers, the ones who keep reinventing themselves, will keep adapting to the times. They face a constant struggle to convince consumers to just do something with all those wonderful images that will someday disappear into an electronic morass.

Well, I’ve had it with continuous reinvention! So I’ve stepped aside. As a curmudgeon, I tell myself they’ll miss me. I liked the me I was three iterations ago . . .

Chris Lydle has had a notable career in photo retail for more than 60 years. He and his wife, Thelma, settled in northern New Jersey and he went into retail, establishing three Chris’ Camera Centers. In 1999, they “retired” to Aiken, South Carolina, where he opened another Chris’ Camera Center from scratch and remained very active in the industry. Last month, he retired again and closed the last store.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Yes, a remarkable career, Chris! It was fun sharing a little part of that with you. And you and I still wonder where those ‘images’ will be years from now, the ones shared in a moment from phone to the internet and then…gone. Glad I got to visit your place in Aiken and meet some of those customers. You had a big crowd come to that meeting you organized at the public library. And yes, I too was shocked at the other end of the country to hear the news but time does march on. Say hi to your dear wife for me and enjoy some quieter days now.

  2. Yep, someone I looked up to in the industry. Taught us how to ‘teach digital photography’ and more important, why. Taught us not to give up, what to expand into, how to keep going. Set the standard for selling gear in an ‘ultra competitive’ market, what to sell when prints don’t and more. But now? Happy ‘semi-retirement’ and I know you’ll be missed!

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