Central Cameras: Photo haven in the windy city
A few years ago I used travel to the US from Australia regularly. The 14-16 hour flight — the time varied according to the head/tail winds — was always a drag but the overnight flight home was made more bearable by being able to read Shutterbug magazine which I had invariably picked up from a newsstand at LA airport.
Shutterbug is still published but it is a shadow of its former self. Back then it was printed on cheap newsprint in a large format and it was packed with ads for gear. There were articles on cameras and techniques but primarily it was an advertising medium. The ads were extraordinary. Every monthly issue was the same — page after page of American camera shop ads for new and used gear.
Of course back then it was all film gear and the change to digital and the universal popularity of the internet caused both the rapid decline of Shutterbug and the camera shops which advertised in the magazine.
The decline of Shutterbug is sad but the decline of the traditional camera shop is much sadder. In 2007 there were over 10,000 camera shops in the USA. Today there are fewer than 2,500 and the number is still declining. The situation is very much the same across the world.
The traditional camera shop stuffed with gear — both analogue and digital — and staffed by enthusiastic, knowledgeable people is a highly endangered species. Fortunately some still survive. Here in Australia my personal favourite is Camera House Adelaide situated in the Central Markets. It is in a tiny place but it has ticked all the right boxes for me over many years. Sadly it is 1400km from my home but I still give them my big ticket purchases; I recently bought my Leica Q from them.
A unique camera shop institution — perhaps the granddaddy of them all — is in Chicago: Central Cameras. They have been in business since 1899 so they have deep roots.
They are centrally located at 230 S Wabash. The frontage is small but it is a deep store packed with gear of all types, both film and digital. And they have big stocks of film, printing paper and chemicals.
The shop looks untidy because it is untidy — they may well not have had a clean up since opening. There are vintage Leicas wedged onto shelves and all manner of odd cameras are on display. They are Leica agents and when I visited last week I was fortunate to have the proprietor, Albert Flesch, serve me. After some sorting through a few boxes he was able to find the Leica battery I was seeking. We had a very genial chat and he even gave me a blueberry muffin and one to take back to the hotel for my spouse. You don't get that at Amazon. Check out their website.
If you live in or near Chicago you are very fortunate to have Central Cameras. As photography enthusiasts we should all try and support the remaining traditional camera shops wherever they are. Their very survival depends on us.