They're scattered around the suburbs, a relative handful of independent camera stores that successfully compete against web giants and big box retailers typically offering a lower price, free shipping and, sometimes, no sales tax.
It's what those competitors often don't offer -- personal service -- that can make the difference. In that context, LaGrange Camera Inc. and PJ's Camera & Photo Supply in Glen Ellyn serve nicely as stand-ins for nearly every small business doing battle with the big guys.
Both stores take pride in providing hands-on service.
Digital is dominant in photography, but at PJ's "We never considered digital a threat," says Keith Larson, a PJ's worker since 1975 and owner for the past 28 years. "Everyone today carries a camera. The whole idea is to get people to capture memories."
It's how to best preserve those memories that can be interesting.
"The best way is with hard copies," Larson says -- prints that can be copied, repaired and restored so the memories live on. "In the California fires this summer, the last thing people grabbed was the photo album."
Chances are, he says, that "Your grandparents' photo albums still exist."
Larson is fond of showing a 3.5-in floppy disc -- remember them? -- at his photography presentations. "How do you get the pictures off this floppy disc?" he asks. "I can make an image from (civil war photographer) Matthew Brady's glass plate, but I can't do the same from a floppy."
PJ's offers legacy film processing but also has a kiosk for customers shooting digitally -- and an array of digital cameras and related equipment. It's somewhat intriguing, however, when Larson notes, "Young people are buying film cameras. It's a retro thing. Their parents and grandparents had film."
The situation is somewhat similar in LaGrange. "We sell used 35 mm cameras and lenses because nobody is making new ones," says Heather Fulscher, manager at LaGrange Camera. Polaroid cameras are popular with younger buyers "because it shoots the picture out right away," she says.
But, like PJ's, it's service that makes a difference at LaGrange Camera.
Fulscher offers classes -- in reality, often one-on-one training sessions -- teaching camera buyers how to get the best results from their purchase.
"People realize there's so much more they can do than leave the camera setting on auto," Fulscher says. "We let buyers touch and feel the camera" before they buy -- and, incidentally, connect with a face who will help when they have questions.
Without the hands-on assistance both stores offer, "People are not getting full benefit of even simple cameras," says Mike Hudson, a widely acclaimed professional photographer based in Wheaton
"If you spend $1,000 for a camera, you want to feel it, test the weight," Hudson continues.
You also want to learn how to use it. "A lot of people try to learn online," Hudson says, "but it helps to have a store where you can go and ask, 'Now what do I do?'"
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