View Full Version : Thinking of opening a camera store - Am I crazy?

Mike Tobias
6-Feb-2005, 20:12
First, I apologize for the lengthy post, I'm just trying to eliminate a lot of the questions people are likely going to ask. First a little background. I've worked in 4 different labs, and 2 different used camera stores, and know the song-and-dance of both. I also have my own darkroom, which is at the current moment filled with more equipment than I can use. I've bought and sold so many pieces of eqipment by now (both for myself and the stores I've worked for) that I only remember the really nice pieces that have come and gone. While working at the camera stores, many, many times people came in with gear that they wanted to sell, but theat the store was unwilling to buy, either because the owner didn't know what it was worth (even after I showed him) or didn't want to have any more used gear in the case (the overpriced new gear should move first I was told). I didn't have the $ to pick up much of the gear myself (even the Dorff 8x10 that was very reasonably priced, still kick myself over that one) but dod manage to pick up some now and again.

So anyway, this in mind, I am thinking of opening a used camera store, focused primarily around LF and MF, although with some 35 and high end digital (all used) would also be part of the mix. As part of the shop, a darkroom rental would be avaliable, for printing anything from 35mm all the way to 8x10, and also alternative processes (platinum, palladium, etc). Also contemplating renting out LF and MF equipment, as well as perhaps digital and high-end 35mm, and setting up a by-the-hour digital workstation rental, as well as having classes on LF and darkroom processes. The university here in town has darkroom space so limited that I've been asked on many occation by students if they could rent mine, and there is only one other darkroom for rent in town, or anywhere near by (and this darkroom only does up to 6x7). Of the current camera stores in town, the only one that offers used equipment is likely going out of business soon, and their offerings, both new and used, are quite pitiful. Finding a space for the darkroom and store is also not an issue, there are several rooms in the building I work in that are completely vacant and that I can get for well below market value. I already have a great deal of equipment myself, and can get much more if I actively seek it out. Part of what I would like to do however is let photographers leave their gear on the store on consignment, which lets the photographer get more from their gear, and means the store will have to front less money for equipment.

I have no starry-eyed notion of large profits, or vacation homes, the only thing I want this store to do is pay for itself, let me spend scads of time in the darkroom, and fiddle with some new gear from time to time. So this is my question, particularly to those of you who have previous experience with this, can this sort of thing sustain itself, or should I seek professional help? Also, how far would you go to seek out a good LF store, which are far and few between? And one last question: What do you think I should expect as far as costs go, and what is an accpetable margin on reselling gear?

Thanks for all your help in advance.


Larry Gebhardt
6-Feb-2005, 20:25
The only question I can answer is how far I would drive for a good used LF store. I would frequent a store that was within 30 minutes of my house. If would take several trips a year to one located an hour away. Over that I think I would only stop by if I was in town.

Good luck if you decide to do it. What area are ou in (hopefully near me in NH)?

David A. Goldfarb
6-Feb-2005, 20:26
Where are you located? In a market as large as New York but with impossibly high rents it's been tough for such businesses to survive (thinking principally of Ken Hansen). On the other hand, if you're in a more remote area but can set up a good e-commerce site and offer good service like KEH, Midwest Photo Exchange (well, their e-commerce is on the blink at the moment), or Badger, you might be able to pay the bills.

Gem Singer
6-Feb-2005, 21:01
Hi Mike,

My free advice (for what it's worth): set up a simple to operate E-commerce website and mail order business. Store your merchandise in a small, safe, garage warehouse. Use a toll free phone number. Advertise heavily in publications such as View Camera magazine. Use Fedex as your shipper. Make certain that your website contains pictures and product descriptions of your merchandise, and forget about opening an over- the- counter store.

Check out Bruce's Large Format Store, The View Camera Store, Fine Art Photo Supply, The F Stop, etc. Badger Graphic is not an over-the -counter camera store, but it gives that impression on it's website. With today's cyber space environments, there is no need to rent an store front with it's expensive overhead costs and the many hours you would need to spend operating it.

Ralph Barker
6-Feb-2005, 21:12
The potential for success obviously depends on the market you're in, and the volume of LF interest within that market. And, I'm sure you've already considered the amount of capital you'd have tied up in inventory in order to have a good selection of gear. Then, there's the issue of how e-commerce would fit into your plan. To compete effectively with direct sales, I think you'd have to offer the same or better e-service than the existing vendors of used gear, and the same sort of return policies. That translates into pretty thin profit margins, it would seem. And, off the top of the old knoggin, running a store-front business and spending lots of time in the darkroom strike me as being mutually exclusive. But, it all depends, I think, on what your objectives are for the business, and what sort of capital is available for the venture.

Andre Noble
6-Feb-2005, 21:55
I think you might look into finding a niche, like working with up-and-coming Chinese manufacturers to import and sell their gear, etc.

There are guys on EBay who do this for Hasselblad, etc.

Frank Petronio
6-Feb-2005, 22:25
Any niche store will do well on the internet if you do it right and keep the scale appropriate. The failure comes when you spend too much time and $ growing and then find the market isn't there. Start small - sell on eBay and do a newsletter perhaps? Grow organically.

The market might support an advanced amateur - professional quality online store that sells carefully selected items and supports them with strong service. The main thing is to build a sense of community - and loyalty - from customers. One thing that is sorely lacking with all of the online stores selling view camera gear is real information - many stores and even manufacturers have a hard time posting the most basic information about their products. When I go to KEH, MPEX, Badger, or any of the others I left cold - unless I already know that Jeff or Jim work there. I have no love for them, but I often end up buying stuff at B&H - and paying NYS sales tax for the privilege - because the other online stores have such poor websites that I can't find what I'm looking for.

I think Anthony Guidiace, of Fine Art Photo Supply, is trying to rekindle the old Fred Picker - Zone VI spirit with his "Fine Art Photo Supply", down the point of selling white vinyl camera bags and sending out a newsletter in the same vein as Freddy... Maybe you could find a more up to date niche?

I don't know how profitable the venture would be, but as all the local camera stores go out of business, the online niche stores should do better. Even in the buggy whip industry, there still must be one company left standing, and I bet they do pretty well.

Of course, I am neglecting to account for eBay. I usually look to eBay first, and by the sundries and oddball items at the stores... If I want a 150mm Sironar, there will always be a couple on the bay. So maybe that shoots my whole post to hell...

David A. Goldfarb
6-Feb-2005, 22:43
Here ya go, Frank--

http://www.carriagedrivingessentials.com/index.php?pg=17 (http://www.carriagedrivingessentials.com/index.php?pg=17)

A google search for "driving whips" turns up quite a few manufacturers!

Frank Petronio
6-Feb-2005, 23:05
That's nothing - I bought a new Scythe last year - beats a noisey weedwacker - and even use a "new old stock" pre-WW2 Austrian blade.

http://www.scythesupply.com/ (http://www.scythesupply.com/)

Us Hippie Republicians like "natural" lawns...

Michael S. Briggs
6-Feb-2005, 23:06
You are thinking of about three different businesses: darkroom rental, equipment rental, and used sales. You main motivation is that you think these all would be fun. That is fine, but you really need to make a written business plan. What will your monthly expenses be? How much capital will you need? What is the carrying cost of your inventory? Most startups lose money for some time -- take that into account. How many lenses/cameras/etc. do you need to sell per month and at what markup to bring in more money than your expenses? My recommendation is to start off less ambitiously -- perhaps pick one of the business ideas. The equipment sales might be the best, because as the others have suggested, you can do that through the internet or ebay with minimal fixed costs. All sorts of specialty stores over America have abandoned their storefronts to sell on ebay.

Completed sales on ebay or inventory listings of internet camera stores such as KEH can tell you what stuff sells for. Your markup can't lead to prices that exceed those of the established competition. You think you can find more stuff to sell -- can you find it at prices sufficiently lower than the going selling price to make a profit after expenses?

If you want decide to do anything more than selling through ebay then you should seek professional help. The Small Business Administration and some states have programs to help business startups. Find someone with experience to review your business plan to make sure that it is realistic and that you have not forgotten anything.

Bob Salomon
7-Feb-2005, 01:39
" it's been tough for such businesses to survive (thinking principally of Ken Hansen)"

Ken is still in business in NYC. He has no problem surviving. Neither do FotoCare, KB, Photo Habitat, Photo Gizzmmo, Lens & Repro, etc.

Note that while all sell used they all also sell new. Same with Midwest, Glazers, Gassers, K&S, Ken Mar, Kenmore, K&B,Cameras West, etc.

Brian Ellis
7-Feb-2005, 03:34
I worked part-time for about six months in a pro camera store as a fun job after I retired from my real job. I still visit the store and chat with the people there. My impression is that the store is doing very well with digital, the film department )new and used, mostly 35mm) isn't doing much, and what little medium and large format they had before is basically non-existant. They still carry a pretty good line of darkroom supplies but I think mainly because there are three colleges in the area that offer darkroom courses. Without that market I doubt that the darkroom stuff would still be there.

I don't think anybody can tell you how successfull your proposal might be without knowing a whole lot more than you've told us here, mainly about the size of your market and your projected expenses. FWIW, I think the equipment sales part (I have no experience with equipment and darkroom rentals) is viable for medium and large format only if you're in a very large metro area and/or can keep your overhead to a bare minimum and even then I'd forget medium format. It's sad to say but I think medium format is pretty much dead except for digital backs on medium format cameras and that market will be pretty limited until prices come way down.

Donald Qualls
7-Feb-2005, 04:44
Brian, I disagree. I had little trouble finding a place in Greensboro, NC (about 80,000 population) that could process my 120 C-41 in house, on 2-day turn around, and stocks a pretty full selection of 120 size film. When local processing and film are this available in a relatively small town, I can't think of medium format as being dead.

Large format is another story -- I haven't seen sheet film anywhere but online since moving from Seattle.

7-Feb-2005, 05:47
I think the digital end may be the place to go. Selling used high end digital equipment. And offering rental use of this type of equipment. This stuff changes so fast that you will have more turnover then used analog stuff. And a lot of it is so expensive new that people can't afford it. Especially when the value drops so fast.

Scott Rosenberg
7-Feb-2005, 06:02

as a LF consumer, i hope you open the store and are enriched greatly by it. we can always use another jim. however, when you stated,

"I have no starry-eyed notion of large profits, or vacation homes, the only thing I want this store to do is pay for itself, let me spend scads of time in the darkroom, and fiddle with some new gear from time to time."

in your original post, have you given any thought to where you're going to find scads of time? the reason jim, jeff, and others are so successful is that they spend the time required giving personal attention and expertise to their customers. i know that's the reason i send my money to them. try to get jim on the phone today... i gaurantee you will end up in a queue, and not because he's in the darkroom. running a buisness like the one you're proposing will do anything but give you extra leisure time. if the 'survey' post a few threads back is any indication, there's plenty of money to be made in LF gear, but you need to go into this with both eyes open.

be sure to keep us abreast of your decisions.

mark blackman
7-Feb-2005, 06:22
I would initially follow Eugene's advice - start off with a virtual store on the web. Costs will be a lot lower for a start-up. You could then start having 'viewing' days where potential buyers can come and try out your kit. Personally I'd leave it there, especially for the market you are trying to enter. I doubt if there is any walk-in trade now for LF kit, certainly not enough to pay the rent of an outlet with sufficient passing traffic. If you can build up a decent reputation then word-of-mouth *way* bring sufficient trade to warrent a regular camera store.

I would treat the darkroom project as a separate business, all be it under the same name. You are dealing with a difference audience with different needs they are more likely to make an impulse (but lower value) purchase of paper, chemicals etc. Personally I think you are brave to consider such a venture in such litigations times, how soon before a client tries to sue after stubbing their toe in the dark, or deciding they have an alergy to any of the chemicals used?

Ellen Stoune Duralia
7-Feb-2005, 07:07
Hi Mike! You never did mention where you are located :-)

You've gotten some good advice already - I would agree that beginning with a virtual storefront would be a very good way to test the waters and if things go well, sales from that will give you start-up capital for your retail store. You have also been given the secrets to success: Provide detailed information on the items you are selling; Provide excellent customer service; Be honest in your dealings; Do all of the above and create customer loyalty by consistently delivering knowledgable sales and service. You will be amazed at how successful you can be by simply applying those basic principles.

As for the retail aspect, I can tell you that there are three dedicated camera stores close to where I live (not counting Wolfs Camera - never liked those stores). Out of those three stores, there is one that I go to consistently because they apply the basic principles listed above. They know who I am and I know that if I have a problem, they've got my back. Do they cost more than shopping online? Of course, they do! They have overhead to deal with. But when I walk into their store, I know that I will be free to look, touch, and feel their stuff while being left alone. If I want to test something out - no problem. If I have a question, they are there. And probably the most important aspect is the fact that they are nice to me and they don't act as if I am an inconvenience.

Long post I know but my point is this. If you can deliver the goods and provide good service, then you will be successful whether your selling online or across the counter. Good luck to you!

By the way, you never mentioned where you are located ;-)

Anne Williams
7-Feb-2005, 07:48
There is one camera store (plus two small Wolf cameras at the mall) where I live (city of about 150,000, metro area about 300,000). I would love to do business with them and would pay more to get customer service and to help keep a local business going. This local store does not get my business unless I'm desperate though because of the attitude of the owners. They act almost hostile when you walk in. They seem to resent the fact that people can get information and pricing from the internet. They will not negotiate on prices even if they have not had to spend any time showing you the options and selling the item to you (if I did utilize their time and I chose what they offered, I'd feel ethically obligated to purchase it from them).

This local business is not doing as well as they could, but the consensus of all the potential customers that I know here is that it is because of the unfriendly atmosphere. That is something that you can control.

My ideal store would have instructive and knowledgable staff who are willing to recommend something that they don't carry if it is better for your needs, fair prices (above mail order, but below full retail), darkroom rental for those who don't have one, a studio space to rent, and plenty of available instruction via classes, workshops, etc.

7-Feb-2005, 08:55
I second Michael's advice. You need to develop a business plan. Formalizing the details of your idea will help test its validity. Weigh carefully your costs against what you can reasonably expect to take in. And don't forget to pay yourself unless you like working for free.

The SBA does have a large number of resources available for the asking. At the minimum they can help you develop a business plan and review it with you. Take advantage of their services.

Above all, remember how much time this will take away from making photographs.

John Kasaian
7-Feb-2005, 10:10
The niche market is the way to go. If you count on traditional markets---developing, printing, film and camera sales you'll be competeing with every Costco, Sam's Club, drugstore and supermarket. Even catering to digitalized Pros is a big gamble. I had an inlaw who started a service bureau with all the latest bells and whistles midway between SF and LA (did I mention he's out of business?) The local store in my town that caters to the college/ high school student market does so as a service, not as an income producer.
If you have a good market base and the rents are undervalued, space is an asset you might tap into---dark room space, studio space, exhibition space. All these have the potential to be money makers if you're in the right location and if your locale happens to be in an economically challenged area you may be eligible for low interest financing or other perks that come with revitalization district.

Good Luck!

7-Feb-2005, 10:14
Yes, you are.

Michael Kadillak
7-Feb-2005, 10:30
This is not the venue to call upon when one is even considering such a critical business decision. All you are going to get here are a plethora of opinions that carry a life's experience of bias one way or another because so far, nobody has provided you with direct personal experience in the venue you are considering. Bob Salomon is probably the closest to the pulse of what is happening and I would spend time with him if you were to continue.

Get the hard facts. Find the Small Business Resources Center in your area and have them help you through the process of charting your necessary cash and possible debt flow to get to your objective and it will solve or torpedo itself. There is a reason that 2/3rds of all small businesses fail in the first year. Last thing you need is a default loan hanging over your head for God knows how many years. Figure out what you are going to do to make sure that you are going to be the 1/3 that survive and modify your business plan until this condition is sequestered. If it goes, get ready to work your ass off.

Good Luck!

7-Feb-2005, 14:27
You really have to ask yourself 'Am I a better retailer or am I a better photographer?'. If the answer is retailer, then you've got to ask yourself if 'photographic retailer' is the best business plan when the world is switching to digital and every big-box store, every drugstore etc, sells digital equipment.

7-Feb-2005, 15:59
Ask yourself these questions...
1. Is your camera store going to be better than whats out there right now?
2. Can you compete with them?
3. Can you compete with the internet or the chain stores?
4.Are you willing to lose a truckload of cash and/or declare bankruptupcy in case it doesn't work?

Things to remember about owning a business....
1. You are the business. The business owns you. You are it's slave and it's president.
2. You will have way less free time...esp if you are successful.
3. You better like the lifestyle...it's not for everyone.
4. You don't need an elaborate business plan, just common sense. Buy low... sell high...that is really all business is about. Look at Ebony...that has to be the perfect model for a LF camera maker. Talk about selling high! Competency in retail and customer relations is a given if you want to build a good reputation... but if you dont make rent...you will be finished fast. Remember that hundreds of business's go out of business every year even with the best marketing plans...usually because of the naivite or overall stupidity of the owners.

Go into business if you feel it in your heart. Do your research. Embrace the independent lifestyle with you at the healm of your ship. It really is better than working for someone else! I've been in business for 11 years.
Good luck!
Emile www.deleon-ulf.com

7-Feb-2005, 16:54

you'll be broke and closed inside of a year. there's just no way to feed the dinosaur you describe. now if you'd said you were opening a service bureau in a college town, i'd say 'go for it,' if fer instance that school enrolled over 20k.

good luck in whatever you decide,


Mike Tobias
7-Feb-2005, 17:46
Thank you all for your very informative answers, they'll certainly weigh in on my decision. As many have suggested, I'm already getting info from the SBA. Also concur on the point that many have brought up about the web, and a site would certainly be in my plans. I am thinking in light of all the advice I've been given (both here and many other sources) that I'd be better off starting a darkroom/studio rental, rather than a full blown store. The start-up costs would be fairly nominal, considering the gear I already own, and it wouldn't involve nearly as many rigors as running a retail front. I suppose that also as an ulterior motive here, I'd like to start at least some local community of photographers, and a space to work and collaborate in. BTW, for those who asked, I am in Ft Collins Colorado.

Also, for those who mentioned being in stores where they were pushy and rude when you mentioned online research or pricing, I've worked at such a store before (I actually heard my manager tell a customer that she was "wasting his time" after learning that she had looked on-line). Thanks again for all your advice.

jonathan smith
8-Feb-2005, 03:22
I second the opinions of the others to start with e-commerce and build your business little by little, especially if you want to stay in the more esoteric niche of LF. Paying rent is a huge problem for a business with little foot traffic. If you do open a store, you will probably have to do 35mm machine processing and dye-sublimation prints to pay the rent. Most of your customers would be regular people getting prints of their kids and vacations. You'll spend lots of time showing people how to load their digital cameras.

If you want to do high quality LF processing and equipment, I think you would need to have a national or worldwide market. And eliminating rent as a business expense would help you a lot.

I do something similar with sheet music, I'm a hobbyist musican and thought it would be fun to make money and have the world's largest collection of sheet music. It certainly is; but it takes quite a bit of time for the money earned and this does cut into my time spent playing music (and doing photography, I might add!). Yet I can't just stop; I have orders to fill almost every day. Once you start, you're on a speeding train and it takes quite a lot to get off again, considering the investment in inventory and equipment. So you would be giving up a lot of your shooting time in exchange for dealing with the other areas of the business.

So go ahead, and good luck, but my input is your life will change, and you have to be ready for this phase.