Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood is the last place many might look for a brick-and-mortar photography retailer. The offices of Amazon and other tech companies dominate the area, and new high-rises are going up anywhere developers can find a sliver of land or an old building to tear down. Yet there amid the glassed-in towers sits Glazer’s, the 80-year-old, family-owned camera store that has been a fixture in South Lake Union since they moved to the neighborhood in 1986 to be near a photo lab that has long since closed. Now run by third-generation, brother-and-sister team Rebecca Kaplan and Ari Lackman, Glazer’s offers local pros and enthusiasts—Amazon employees among them—an experience that online retailers can’t: a chance to ask questions and talk shop with experts, test out equipment and take classes that improve their skills, and humans they can talk to if something goes wrong with their gear. Glazer’s also has a rental department, and will lend equipment to photographers if they need a repair on a piece of equipment they bought in the store. Kaplan says it’s these services, which a mass retailer can’t offer, that are bringing people into Glazer’s. “I feel like there has been a shift to come back to the in-person experience,” she explained to PDN last year.
For this and other reasons, Kaplan says she senses an energy in the camera retail business that hasn’t been there in previous years. “Not that it’s easy,” Kaplan qualifies, but the companies that have adapted and survived now form a passionate core that includes dealers and manufacturers working in “a true partnership…. whether you’re on the manufacturing side or whether you’re on the dealer side. I feel that the passion for what we do does turn to optimism,” Kaplan says.
Part of Kaplan’s optimism is specific to Glazer’s. They opened a new store in summer 2016, a beautiful, 13,000-square-foot, two-story shop with a classroom, a U-shaped camera display counter that fills most of the ground floor, and walls of windows that look out onto the street and flood the space with natural light. Sales are up in the year since the new store opened, Kaplan says, and Glazer’s has also expanded into the cinema space to meet the needs of photographers who are working with video. Glazer’s is now a RED camera dealer, and is one of only a handful of camera retailers that are Canon Pro EOS Cinema dealers.
Kaplan’s optimism certainly isn’t universal. Earlier this year, Palo Alto, California retailer Keeble & Shuchat Photography closed both its stores, and Showcase in Atlanta also closed after more than 40 years. In interviews with reporters, representatives of both shops laid out some of the market conditions that led to their closures: Competition with online retailers that aren’t forced to charge sales tax; shoppers that browse equipment in the retail store but buy online; and diminished profit margins on cameras and other products.
To differentiate themselves from online retailers and to stay current, retailers are doing things such as offering photographic education, photo walks and in-store demos, and creating a comfortable atmosphere for customers. Jennifer Waicukauski bought Berkeley, California-based retailer Looking Glass Photo in 2008, almost a decade after she began working at the store as a photography student. When Looking Glass moved to a new location in 2013, it was designed to “make the store a significantly better customer experience,” Waicukauski says. “You walk in and feel good and feel inspired, and are surrounded by people who are here to help you get the pictures that you want; not just sell you a thing, but really understand your photographic journey and give you all of the things that are best for what you want to do. That is something that the Internet can’t really do.”
Retailers that want to keep operating as they did 20 years ago are probably experiencing difficulties, Waicukauski notes, “but the ones that were more in-tune with the changes and listening to the needs of their customers and being involved in online [retail], paying attention to what other businesses are doing, were able to roll with those changes and really get excited about what it could mean.” Once she took over ownership, Waicukauski evolved the business so that it was not just about selling cameras, “it was about selling photography,” her colleague Jon Freel explains. One of the oft-cited difficulties of the photo industry as a whole is the struggling compact camera market, which has eroded as smartphones have become the portable camera of choice for many consumers. But among Looking Glass customers, Freel says, interest in analogue photography is surging. They have trouble keeping film in stock, their “darkroom is full most days,” and their black-and-white printing classes sell out.
There are more people taking photographs than ever before, Waicukauski says. “That means that more people than ever have the potential to be our customers. We have something to offer them, it’s just a matter of getting word to them that we’re here and we have something for them.”
Kaplan says that one of the major obstacles for independent specialty camera retailers is just getting people in the door. “When they’re in, we feel like we take care of them very well, but it can be a challenge. Social media is a great tool, as is offering ongoing education to bring customers in.”
In the days before autofocus SLR cameras, when the barrier to entry for photography was higher, Glazer’s catered to a “primarily professional base,” Kaplan says. As digital cameras made photography accessible to a wide range of people, Glazer’s retrained their staff to serve not just pros, but first-time camera buyers, enthusiasts of all levels and students. “That was almost 20 years ago, and our staff reflects the wide range of clients we serve.”
Pros tend to roll their eyes at the “everyone is a photographer now” cliché, but one of the consequences of photography’s growth in the digital age is that specialty camera retailers have more potential customers. “Everyone,” in other words, may just help keep your local independent camera store in business.
When independent retailers get together at a meeting or an event hosted by a manufacturer, Kaplan says, she sees “that passion and that enthusiasm for helping people do what they enjoy better.” Many of her peers, like Kaplan and her brother, are carrying on family businesses.
“There are very real challenges to our business and we focus on taking care of our staff and staying focused on our core business,” Kaplan says. “What keeps me engaged is knowing that each tool or product we sell, whether it’s a box of film or a lens or whatever it is, has the potential to make a difference. Creative expression for work or as a hobby is very powerful. Whether someone is using imagery to capture a moment to preserve a memory, or they’re documenting something to hopefully [inspire] change, or they’re able to meet the needs of their commercial client. Those are the things that keep me inspired and keep me sane, knowing that we help do that.”
This article is part of a larger series of trends and challenges in the photo industry. To read more articles in the series, check out The Ups/Downs of the Year Past and Year Ahead.