‘Death by a thousand cuts’: University Camera is closing after 48 years

Roger Christian at University Camera, 4 S Dubuque St, in March 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

Little Village’s interview with Roger Christian started late. He was on the phone with someone in Solon whose remote-controlled trigger for her camera flash wasn’t working. Christian slowly walked her through all the possible solutions to the problem, before saying, “I’ll just send you a new one.”

“That’s what people are going to lose when this place closes,” Christian said, hanging up the phone.

Christian and his wife Chris have owned University Camera in downtown Iowa City since 1984, and for all that time both amateur and professional photographers have relied on Christian’s expert advice.

University Camera, which opened in 1970, is the last full-service camera store in Johnson County and one of a handful of such stores still remaining in the Midwest. When it closes its doors for the last time on April 15, a wide range of photographic services will disappear in Iowa City.

“We’re the last place in Iowa City that develops film in-house,” Christian said. “When we close, black-and-white processing is gone. Color processing is gone. Slide scanning is gone. Large format flatbed scanning is gone. Memory card recovery is gone.”

Most importantly, the store’s staff, who collectively have well over a century’s worth of experience in photography, will be gone.

Christian, an intense man with a compact build and a booming voice, has been a constant presence in the store. And despite spending most of his adult life working in camera stores, he doesn’t really consider himself a photographer.

“If you want to talk about artistic composition, I’m not your man,” Christian said. “But if you want to know technical stuff — how to do lighting, close-up photography, film processing, slide film processing, color printing, black-and-white printing, how to set up an enlarger or set up a darkroom — I’ve done it all.” He shrugged, and added, “That’s because I could never afford to pay anyone to do these things for me. So by design, by bullheadedness, I’ve learned to do it all.”

Christian has been interested in the technical aspect of photography since he was a young boy. Although he doesn’t have a trace of a Southern accent, Christian was born and raised in Alabama. His parents were both Midwesterners, but Christian’s father, an attorney, was transferred to Alabama while working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture during World War II. After the war, he went into private practice but stayed in Alabama.

Christian came to Iowa City in 1964 to study physics and astronomy at the University of Iowa.

“I had a miserable time in physics and astronomy,” Christian said with a laugh. “So I got out of that and ended up with a degree in radio, TV and film.”

He got his first job in a camera shop, Times Photo, while he was an undergraduate.

In 1969, he went into the army and served in Vietnam. “I learned inventory control and accounting in the Army,” Christian said. “I learned it in a warzone.”

Christian returned to Iowa City in 1971 and got a job at the recently opened University Camera.

“There were four camera stores in the city at the time,” he said. “It was a good time for camera stores; they were all doing well.”

After three years, he quit to take a job at a radio station. In 1975, he returned to University Camera, this time as manager.

“That lasted until 1980, when I got annoyed about a bunch of stuff and quit,” Christian said. He took a job selling cars. “Jiminy Christmas, the money was so much better. If I’d stayed selling cars I’d be somewhere between $1.5 million and $3.5 million ahead of where I am now.”

But in late 1983, Christian learned that the owner of University Camera wanted to sell. He and his wife bought the store for $32,000 and took over on Feb. 1, 1984.

“‘I own my own store. I’m king of the world,’ I thought,” Christian recalled. “The honeymoon lasted until about 1986, when the farm crisis hit.”

The economy of Iowa and the rest of the Midwest collapsed.

“We were just scraping by,” Christian said. It took 10 years for the store to get back on a solid footing. But during all that time, University Camera remained a vital part of Iowa City.

“The store was a real community builder,” Steve Shriver said. Shriver, now the owner of Eco Lips and one of the leading businessmen in the I-380 corridor, worked at University Camera in the mid-’90s.

The artistic community counted on the store for photography-related services and the staff’s technical expertise. But University Camera’s reach went well beyond the arts.

“There was a lot going on in a little space; it was like a beehive. And it all worked,” Shriver said. “It was great to be a part of a real entrepreneurial environment. Seeing Roger manage everything from processing to camera repair to doing work for the hospital and working with the sheriff’s office on crime scene photos. It was an amazing experience.”

But it wasn’t long after the store was starting to thrive that the market began to shift again, this time under the internet.

“It was probably in the early 2000s [that] we really began to feel an effect,” Christian said. “Of course, we’d always had competition from mail-order, but eventually the internet was a sea-change that began to bite.”

The camera business is a natural fit for online retailers, according to Christian.

“I wouldn’t order clothes on the internet, because I’ve got weird shapes. But you order a piece of camera equipment on the internet, and you’ll get the same thing you can get in a store.”

“Realistically, am I happy about this? Hell, no. But on the other hand, I’ve benefited from it,” Christian said. “If I place an order with Canon before 1 p.m., that item is on my desk by 10 a.m. the next day. That means that I don’t have to stock as much.”

University Camera has been facing more challenges than competing with low-price online retailers. Christian described it as “death by a thousand cuts.”

“Besides the internet, there’s sales tax, rising wages, pressure from manufacturers, whose rebate structures provide us a pretty minimal gross profit margin,” Christian explained. “Because the rebates, there is no profit in cameras, there is no profit in lenses. You’re lucky if you make 2 or 3 percent off a sale.”

“For years, I’ve been making $200 to do the work of $500,” he said. Recently, he and his wife have been putting more of their own money into the business. “We’re not going to keep doing that.”

Christian doesn’t think there will be a new shop to take University Camera’s place.

“Two people have approached me about buying the store, but the banks won’t lend them money for a camera store,” he said.

Christian isn’t just pessimistic about camera stores in Iowa City, he’s also pessimistic about the survival of small, independent retailers downtown.

Howard Horan in the basement of University Camera. — photo by Zak Neumann

“Based on sitting here for 48 years observing things, I really see Iowa City turning into a service-based downtown,” Christian said. “I see almost no small retail existing in downtown Iowa City in two to five years.”

Retail in all of Iowa City has had a difficult time since the sudden onset of the Great Recession in 2008. A study from Iowa State University found that in fiscal year 2016, average sales per retail business in Iowa City were $580,942. That’s up from the low point reached in 2010, when average sales per retailer were $522,741, but is still well short of the recent high point in 2005 of $824,515.

But Nancy Bird, executive director of the Iowa City Downtown District (ICDD), sees downtown as a bright spot in the Iowa City retail landscape. She notes the vacancy rate for commercial space downtown, consistently around three percent.

“We know that we’re top heavy with food and beverage,” Bird said of the downtown business scene. A 2014 report on downtown retail prepared for the ICDD found that retail shops only made up 31 percent of downtown consumer businesses.

Bird said that successful downtown retail businesses are ones that make the most of their setting. Not just by targeting the foot traffic downtown — the ICDD has a program that helps businesses develop signs that stand out to pedestrians — but also by recognizing that the people shopping downtown enjoy the experience of living in an urban setting.

“Retail is all about enjoying the experience these days,” Bird said. She added that the urban experience downtown has been improving in recent years. The ICDD has spearheaded efforts to clean up the alleys downtown, which pedestrians are increasingly using as walkways, and, most recently, launching an improved free wifi service for the Ped Mall.

As for Roger Christian, he’s looking forward to new experiences after University Camera closes.

“I’m 71 years old, I had a triple bypass last year and I haven’t had a vacation in 20 years,” he said, laughing. “I have hobbies I’d like to spend more time trying. Right now, I’m here 70 hours a week.”

Asked what he is going to miss about University Camera, Christian grew serious.

“It won’t be any one thing that happens here. It’ll be the people I’ve worked with,” he said, with a slight catch in his voice. “By and large, the people we’ve had here have pretty much been outstanding examples of human beings.”

“That’s what I’ll miss.”

Paul Brennan didn’t take any of the photos for this story. If you’ve seen his photos, you understand why. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 239.

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