Growing up, my favorite camera shop was a grimy little hole-in-the-wall place in one of my hometown's less attractive neighborhoods. The store had been around forever (and looked it), reeked of darkroom chemicals, and, on a weekday afternoon, was your best shot at finding four or five of the area's photo pros shooting the breeze.
Need some work done on one of these? I know just the guy...
The shop had all the makings of a stodgy, "members only" kind of establishment, but nothing could really be further from the truth. The owners were up on the latest equipment, sold good gear – new and used – at fair prices, and treated photographers of all skill levels with equal respect. When I was cutting my photographic teeth punching rolls of Tri-X through my K1000, the owners and regular customers never made me feel like I wasn't welcome to join in the discussion because of what camera I shot with or how well (or poorly, as was my case) I used it.
The whole experience – being able to meet skilled photographers who seemed glad to offer everything from advice on lenses to critiques of my latest prints – kept me shopping there well into the age of online commerce, glad to pay a little more for whatever I needed to know that I was supporting a place that had supported me as a photographer.
An interesting tidbit from this week's news tossed out some metrics suggesting that online sales are a growing revenue source for independent shops, but whether most mom-and-pop operations like the one I grew up with can succeed in trying to "out-internet" the best of the dedicated online sellers – experts at speed, efficiency, and on-demand customer service – is anyone's guess. I wouldn't presume to tell small business owners how to do what they do: they have enough to worry about without fielding unsolicited business advice from unqualified sources like me, and if online sales can help keep the doors open at neighborhood camera shops, I'm all for it.
I'm young enough to have largely come of age in a computer-driven world, and I firmly believe that what the internet has done for price competition is a good thing on balance. I just wonder if local stores can simultaneously go head-to-head with the big boys in the fast-paced world of e-commerce and retain the level of personal service that made the best ones among them so good. Maybe experiences like mine, where the local camera store was not only where you bought your film but where you learned about new gear and met other photographers, are destined to become a thing of the past. In turn, maybe this is where online discussion forums like ours step in, allowing photographers to get advice and talk with other photographers on a scale larger than any single physical location could provide.
These days, I live two states away from my favorite camera shop, and I'll admit that I've yet to find another one quite as good. Honestly, many of the local stores I've shopped at since have been of the kind that I really won't mind seeing go the way of the dinosaur, full up of pretentious windbags and overbearing, under-knowledgeable sales clerks. But at its best, the local camera shop has the potential to offer a kind of buying experience that simply doesn't exist much of anywhere anymore. In my book, this is something worth holding on to – even if it costs a little more.