NEWS- Casualty: Digitals close Camera Center


Early in 2005, Rapid Photos announced it was closing its doors, no longer able to continue processing film in a world gone digital camera. The end of the year saw another victim of virtual photos: The venerable Camera Center, Charlottesville's– and maybe Virginia's– oldest camera store ended its 56-year run December 31.

News of its demise left photographers reeling. Charlottesville-based photographer and author Mary Motley Kalergis considered herself speechless.

"It was like getting a divorce," says Kalergis, a customer for 35 years.

"I kept waiting for it to bottom out," says Camera Center owner Gary Alter. He blames the continued decline in photo printing– "the bread and butter of camera stores"– for his decision to pull the plug. "I felt bad," he says. "It gets to the point where there are no more resources– and that's the way it was."

Alter bought the Camera Center 26 years ago from Zack and Bessie Taylor, who opened the West Main Street store in 1949. When Seminole Square shopping center opened, Alter was among the original tenants, opening a second store there 17 years ago.

In the spring of 2004, as digital cameras were already eroding traditional photo processing, Alter closed the Camera Center on West Main.

Alter says that camera sales, while strong, are a loss leader that did not bolster the bottom line. "There is no profit in selling cameras," Alter acknowledges. "We were trying to attract customers. People came to us for our expertise."

The consistent good quality of prints is one reason Kalergis, whose prints have been exhibited in museums and galleries across the country, depended on the Camera Center for so many years.

"Gary would listen to my needs as a professional photographer," says Kalergis. "If I wanted borders, that happened. He listened to what the customer wanted."

Half of his 14-person staff lost their jobs over the past year and a half. The other seven, including Alter, started the New Year unemployed.

While independent photo labs continue to perish, Alter thinks the consumer who stores images on a computer is going to be the ultimate victim of digital technology.

"One of these days, it's going to crash, and a person will lose hundreds of photos that they thought was their photo album," he predicts.

Nor does he see printing photos at home as a solution for long-term preservation. It's cheaper to print digital photos at a lab, which uses archival paper, compared to an inkjet printer at home, says Alter. "Those pictures will fade away," he says. "And the last thing you want to do when you get home from vacation is print 200 pictures yourself."

Alter describes an industry in transition with new technology that people are still figuring out. In the meantime, three independent photo labs remain in town.

"I was shocked when Gary came to me and said he was closing," says Alan Bittman, who owns F-Stop Photo, which also has a location in Seminole Square. Bittman calls Alter a friend and fellow merchant, but he refuses to use the word "competitor."

Bittman says his revenues increased in 2005. "I don't know if it's because Rapid Photo closed or because people are finding out you can't print quality prints at home in a timely manner," he says.

Despite his surprise at the Camera Center's closing, Bittman doesn't foresee any other independent labs shutting down in Charlottesville. "I think the market has thinned out pretty well," says Bittman. "And I'm too doggone stubborn to quit."

Alter is keeping the doors open for two hours a day to fulfill existing orders and tie up loose ends, but he plans to leave the Seminole Square store by the end of January. He'll move inventory and equipment to the West Main store, which he owns, until he can sell the equipment.

And after that? "That's a good question," says Alter, 61. "I'm not in a position to retire."

"I do think the closing of the Camera Center is like how people would feel about the closing of Bodo's," compares Kalergis. "It's a real loss to the photographic community."

Camera Center owner Gary Alter kept waiting for digital's erosion of photo-lab printing to bottom out. Instead, he had to close Charlottesville's oldest camera store on New Year's Eve.<>FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO>

The Camera Center had already closed its West Main Street store. Now the Seminole Square Center will be empty by the end of January.