Still capturing business

After 113 years in Loop, Central Camera keeps on clicking

09/12/2012 10:00 PM

Contributing Reporter

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At first glance, Central Camera seems to have been dropped onto Wabash Avenue from another era. With a large light-up sign and a small storefront, it harkens back to the days when shops and local businesses dotted the Loop’s busy streets.

There’s a reason for that: Central Camera has been here since 1929. But its history goes back even further than that. Founded in 1899, it is one of the oldest small businesses to still operate in the Loop, if not the entire City of Chicago.

After 113 years in operation, Central Camera continues to receive plenty of new and existing customers. Owner Albert “Don” Flesch, the grandson of the store’s founder, says the store has survived thanks to a combination of good customer service, wide selection of products and competitive pricing. Even as the camera technology continues to change and the customer buying habits changes along with them, Flesch is confident that the store will continue to thrive for years to come.

His grandfather (also named Albert Flesch) came to the United States from Hungary when he was only 13 years old. A few years later, he got a job at the camera department of Siegel-Cooper, which was then one of the Loop’s largest department stores.

In 1888, George Eastman developed the Kodak box camera, which made photography accessible to casual customers for the first time in history. As the market for cameras exploded, the elder Flesch decided to strike out on his own, and he opened Central Camera’s first outpost in the storefront at 31 E. Adams St. Customers came the store to buy cameras and have their film developed, all while paying less than they would at larger stores. The business was successful enough to allow Central Camera to move to a larger location at 230 S. Wabash Ave., where it remains to this day.

Even now, Central Camera is a sight to behold. It’s a narrow space that extends deep into the building, with row after row of cameras, camera parts, accessories, memory storage devices, film reels and film processing supplies filling shelves and display cases. Walking through the store feels like a tour through the history of photographic technology, offering everything from bulky cameras that wouldn’t be out of place in a ’50s detective story to digital cameras that are smaller than most smartphones.

One thing Central Camera doesn’t have is video cameras.

“There are too many models,” current owner Flesch explained to a customer earlier this week, “and the technology changes too quickly.”

After over a century in business, Central Camera has no trouble attracting customers. During rush hour, the store can become impassible. But even at off-peak hours, there’s never a point where it has no customers at all. Flesch told Chicago Journal that the store gets an average of 700 customers per day.

Most of the customers either shopped at the store for years or discovered it through word-of-mouth. Students from area colleges make up a decent portion of the customer base.

Flesch places high priority on customer service.

“We want to treat our customers right,” he said. “Like family. With respect.”

Attentiveness is a big part of it. When a customer comes in, an employee is there to ask if they can help.

Central Camera has 20 employees overall, but because many of them are part-timers, the number fluctuates through the year. Flesch takes an active part in the store’s day-to-day business. He personally opens the store, and he can usually be seen talking to customers and helping them decide what cameras they want to buy.

Flesch has been running Central Camera for over 40 years. Through it all, he kept track of the changes in technology, allowing him to discuss advantages and disadvantages of just about every camera currently on the market.

“You can browse for cameras on the Internet,” said Flesch, “but there is only so much you can learn from a computer. When you come to the store, you can talk to us. We’ll try to find out a camera that works for you personally.”

Over its history, the store has scene its share of ups and downs. But while the economy had some impact on Central Camera’s profits, the changes in technology affected the store in far more significant ways.

“As people want smaller cameras, it hurts the sales of larger items,” said Flesch. “The patience factor is reduced. People can fire off shots one after another. More images are taken, but there’s not as much care.”

As the result, there is less demand for camera stands and other equipment that helps photographers set up shots.

There is also the matter of smartphones. With the advent of “capturing devices” (Felsch refuses to call them “cameras” because of what he sees as inferior quality), there is less demand for cameras in general.

Nonetheless, Flesch believes that Central Camera continues to offer something no other store can. Aside from customer service, he points to his inventory and the prices.

“When you go to mass merchants,” he explained. “Most of them have a few cameras, but no accessories. People go to there because of hours and location, but their prices are usually a bit higher than ours.”

Plus, there is the matter of aesthetic appeal.

“We are part retailer, part living, breathing, heart-pounding museum,” Flesch said. “Not that it makes us better — it just makes us different.”

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