Sunday, May 27, 2012

A visit to a NYC photo store icon

As a young man, I used to pour over various photography magazines: Popular Photography, Modern Photography, Camera 35, Peterson's Photographic, and others. Other than a focus on things photographic (no pun intended) they all tended to share large sections of the same multi-page ads each month, usually populating (dominating) the final pages of each publication. These ads were dense with camera and lens price listings, all pennies above cost - so it seemed. Back in the day, they were all mail-order purchases.

I vowed that some day, I'd try to visit one of these venerable stores. I thought that would be easy as it seemed almost all of the companies were packed into New York City. How hard would it be to find one? Why, there must be camera stores on every block, my youthful mind envisioned.

Over the years, I have visited NYC on business trips a few times. The city is amazing. I always enjoyed my stay, however brief. But I never had time to track down one of the photo stores listed in those various camera magazines. Until this month.

After attending a conference in NYC in the Chelsea district, I had just a bit of time in the early evening to be out on my own. Thanks to a cel phone with Google Maps, I located a couple of stores I remembered from those photo magazines of long ago. Both were not too far away; a short stroll up the avenues. Off I went. I had to hurry as these stores all close what I would consider to be early; around 7pm during weekdays.

My first stop was to be Adorama. They still have huge ad spreads in most photo publications just like the old days, only now with digital equipment. In my mind, I imagined that their headquarters store must be an enormous Macy's-sized structure. What with all those eager camera buyers in a city of millions, the store should, out of simple necessity, be huge. Nope, it's not. Not at all.

The shop is about mid-block with a bright blue awning over the door. After entering the store, you pass by a couple of obvious security guard who eye you as you pass to note any packages or other suspicious objects. The store, while very clean, modern and very well appointed, is made up of two rooms, each about the size of a good-sized Subway sandwich shop.

The first room comprises a series of sales check-out stations along one wall and various small counters with photo-related goods smattered about elsewhere, all arranged to provide aisles. The other room has counters along both long walls. You can look at professional photography items, darkroom equipment, picture frames, tripods, and vintage cameras with the assistance of clerks. Pretty much everything is segregated by manufacturer or by the type of product.

My interest was in the vintage film equipment. Not too surprising there. I found a small glass counter with some glass shelving behind it. The person manning the station was very knowledgeable and had about the same silvery hair color as my own. True, there were a couple items of relative rarity available on display, but I had imagined to find much, much more available in such a large city. After a good half-hour walking Adorama, I left empty-handed. Not unhappily, the store is perfectly fine. I'm the one with the expectations disconnect.

I cancelled my plans to scurry over to the other camera store and simply went back to the hotel. I learned that I had had it backwards all these years. With those big mail-order ads of yesteryear, with their present online marketing, there probably never was (nor should be) an emphasis at these type of camera stores to rely on walk-up sales. They're turning inventory behind the scenes at a rate that couldn't be achieved with potential tourist sales like mine.Like some things, my memories are better than my realities.

After dinner that evening, I went online and found everything of interest at Adorama displayed on my monitor. Plus, their eBay listings provided the hit of vintage gear I sought. Imagine that.

If I ever go back to NYC again, I will still seek out another of the camera stores I had on my 'must visit' list. I'll do so not so much out of shopping interest - I'll probably leave that to online transactions - but more like to pay my respects to those who fired my imagination.