by Gigi Wood
IOWA CITY – This is no aging dinosaur.
There’s nothing outdated about the 40-year-old business in the 115-year-old building in downtown Iowa City.
“I have 1940s technology mixed with 2010 technology and I have to straddle that line in my business,” said Roger Christian, owner of University Camera.
The business opened in 1970 at 4 S. Dubuque St. and serves as one of the last bastions of unique retailers downtown, which has become a haven for bars, restaurants and clothing stores. Mr. Christian bought the business in 1984.
“It’s a long time for a small business downtown and being the same owners, too,” he said.
Although the sign above the door was taken down recently, University Camera is still very much in business. A new sign will be installed within the next three to four months.
“It had become a pigeon roost,” Mr. Christian said.
University Camera sells 35mm and digital cameras, memory cards and film, darkroom supplies and all the accessories, from bags and tripods to filters and lenses. The store also develops film and processes reprints and enlargements. The business has stayed current by offering digital services, while meeting customer demand for traditional supplies.
“We’re dealing with a digital revolution just as a lot of photo businesses are, in fact, frankly, other businesses are; anybody who has anything to do with putting stuff of paper of any sort, whether it be printing and all the printing shops have had to remake themselves in the last five, 10 years,” he said.
Mr. Christian invested $250,000 in a Fuji Frontier processing machine to handle digital orders. The machine allows the shop to process 11 x 14-inch and 12 x 18-inch prints, which no other shop in town can do. It can print 1,500 4 x 6-inch prints an hour.
“Ten or 11 years ago, Fuji and everybody else started bringing out machines that were based on feeding zeros and ones down a wire instead of a light bulb printing negatives,” he said. “We didn’t leap on it immediately but we jumped on it as soon as we could reasonably afford it.”
Despite the digital revolution, customers continue to bring in rolls of film for processing.
“There’s been an interesting development on that front,” he said. “Film declined precipitously for three to five years; now it seems to have bottomed out. It’s going to be nowhere near the former sales levels, there’s no question about that. But it’s kind of bumping along and I think what we’re looking at is a very, very long tail on film. If you look at it, how many film cameras are still out in the world? Billions, they’re coming out of our ears.”
Traditional film sales are not where they were 10 years ago, but are strong compared to a few years ago, he said. Black-and-white film and processing remains a strong market, as does demand for equipment and services for artists and professionals.
“We never abandoned film,” he said. “Except for some emulsions that we can no longer get because they’ve been discontinued by the manufacturer, we’re still carrying a full range of black and white and it sells. I’m not selling 100 rolls a day, but I’m selling 25 to 40, and that’s a lot of film over the course of a month.”
Five years ago, when there was a glut of film on the market as customers turned to digital cameras, the price of individual rolls dropped sharply. Since then, prices have rebounded and stabilized at about $5 to $6 each.
“The shrinking manufacturing base caused the excess supply to dry up,” he said. “Prices are really back to where they used to be seven or eight years ago.”
Although most national retailers, such as Target and Walgreens, continue to process film, Mr. Christian said his shop has a technical advantage.
“They’ve got the capability to do it but the dividing line is a matter of where do you call it good versus acceptable and where does ‘blow your socks off’ come in; so we’re on the ‘blow your socks off’ end,” he said. “People will bring in prints from Walmart and we’ll look at it and say, ‘why did you (Walmart store employee) put out a print like that? Why is it blue? Why is it green? Why isn’t the color right? It’s basically a matter of the operator and the machine not dialed in properly.”
Because those photographic processing services are so rare, University Camera’s customer base extends across the region.
“I offer in the store virtually every photographic process known to man; I don’t process movie film,” he said. “Other than that, 99.9 percent of the stuff you bring me, we run in house. That’s rare. That includes slide film, true black and white film and color print film, everything.”
The store is one of 10 in the Midwest that continues to process slides.
“So what we’re doing now is we’re being the processor of last resort,” Mr. Christian said. “We get film from all over the state of Iowa, we get it from Illinois, we get it from Minnesota, not much down south yet but I suspect it’s going to pick up.”
The store’s inventory includes difficult-to-find film, lenses and darkroom equipment that Mr. Christian has accumulated over the years.
“Other shop owners call me when they’ve broken a part in an enlarger and I sell it to them because I still have the machines,” he said. “It’s turned out to be worth it to keep that.”
University Camera employs 10 people, each of whom specializes in a specific technical area of photographic processing.
Although University Camera is nowhere near the Iowa River, the store’s business suffered significantly after the 2008 floods. Because the University of Iowa arts campus was flooded, the store lost all of its business from students who would typically buy supplies for photography classes. For University Camera, it meant a $150,000 loss.
“From the minute the darkroom flooded, we lost 150 students,” he said. “It was substantial. You don’t realize the impact of an entire market segment disappear literally overnight.”
Because the store was not damaged by the flood, Mr. Christian did not receive any flood or business-interruption assistance.
“It just meant there was less income and fewer dollars flowing in,” he said. “We were probably running on average about 15 to 20 percent short day after day after day. You can live with that for a little bit, but it’s compounding and after awhile funds start becoming short.”
Business is starting to recover from that dip.
“The good news is it’s turning around,” he said. “I think that’s what you’ll hear from any retailer downtown, it ain’t good but it’s not getting any worse. We’re kind of starting to see a glimmer of hope.”
Mr. Christian, 62, bought University Camera for $32,000. Now, with the equipment and inventory, he estimates his business is worth $750,000. He plans to retire in five years, after spending 50 years in the photo industry. He said he expects the store to close instead of being bought out, because of the investment required to take it over, even if he lowered the price.
“This is why no new camera stores are starting up,” he said. “I run it through my head and try to imagine a college town, this college town, without a dedicated college photo store. The people who use us appreciate what we do. What it costs a town not to have an honest-to-gosh camera store, suddenly what you lose is, you lose the imaging sector. There’s nobody in the entire state of Iowa, that I know of, that does all of the things we do.”
University Camera is the second tenant in the Dubuque Street building since it was built in 1895. The first was Freehoff Leather Goods, which started out as a general store and was one of Iowa City’s longest-running businesses until it closed in 1970.