University Camera is closing, after more than four decades in Iowa City

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Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann

University Camera, a downtown Iowa City fixture and the only full-service camera shop in Johnson County, will be closing in the spring.

“I’ve given my landlord a final termination date of no later than the first of May 2018,” Roger Christian, the store’s owner, told Little Village. “And I’m really hoping to be out of here no later than the first part of April.”

The closure of University Camera will be a major loss for visual arts community in Iowa City, which has counted on it for photographic supplies, equipment repairs and expert advice since the 1970s. Even people who just shoot photos for fun may notice the difference, especially if they use film. The store is only place in Iowa City that still develops film on site.

“Film processing goes away, when we close,” Christian said. “The last wet processing lab in all of Johnson County goes away — the closest one left will be Cedar Rapids. Slide scanning is gone. Large format flatbed scanning is gone. Card recovery is gone.”

Years of technical expertise will also be gone.

“There was a time not long ago, before one of my longtime employees retired, when we had 200-plus years of experience in the store,” Christian said.

Christian got his first job in a camera shop in 1968, and with the exception of his service in the Army and a brief stint selling cars, it’s been his life ever since. In 1984, he bought University Camera, where he has been a constant presence behind the counter.

“We’ve tried to provide, over the course of the years, a pretty good big-city experience, in terms of what we’ve carried and our personnel,” Christian said. “But at this point, nobody cares, because everyone just wants to sit down at the computer and order their equipment on the internet.”

There are other challenges facing a small business — Christian describes the current economic atmosphere as “death by a thousand cuts” — but the biggest challenge has been the competition from online retailers.

“Our big dog in the industry is B&H Photo in New York City. They don’t have to charge sales tax on their sales, which automatically gives them a six percent advantage over me,” Christian explained. “That means on a thousand dollar sale, there’s a $60 differential to start with.”

This Spring, Christian reviewed five years’ worth of sales data, which showed the store was consistently falling short of the sales total needed to make a profit. Things have not improved since.

“The summer was pretty bleak. August and September when students came back, we should have done better. October, things literally fell off the cliff,” Christian said. “We did about a third of what we needed to do to stay around. At that point I started evaluating what’s going on, looking at the fact that nobody is showing up, traffic is down.”

“In the last month and a half, I put a substantial chunk of my own personal money into [the business]. And I won’t do it again. It didn’t help.”

“In reality, what this means is we have become unimportant, unnecessary to people’s lives in this town,” he contined. “And when that happens, you lose your customer base.”

“Plus, the fact I’m 71 now. I had a triple bypass last January, that was sort of the wake-up call from hell. I’ve recovered from that, and life’s good. Also, my wife wants to retire.” Christian’s wife, Chris, does the bookkeeping for University Camera.

University Camera, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann

Christian said he’s looking forward to retirement. “I’ve got other interests I haven’t been able to pursue. And we’ll be getting out, and traveling a little. I probably won’t think about the camera business a great deal.”

But right now, the future of the camera business is very much on his mind, even though the future of University Camera is set.

“I feel terrible about what’s about to happen,” Christian said. “Because, here’s the reality of the whole thing: Right now, there are only five camera stores in the state of Iowa. Des Moines, Davenport, Dubuque, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.”

After next spring, there will be four. The exact closing date for University Camera depends on how quickly the store’s remaining stock sells.

“My intent is essentially to walk out of here with nothing,” Christian said. “The plan is for everything to either be sold, donated or recycled — just gone. The only things I plan to take home with me are the computers.”

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16 thoughts on “University Camera is closing, after more than four decades in Iowa City

  1. I’m really sorry to hear this, Roger. You certainly can’t continue to put your own money into a venue that no longer makes a profit. I know you and your store will be missed.

  2. Thank you for your expertise. You gave great advice, and sold me a Vivitar 286 with a peanut slave, a medium-format Graflex, and lots and lots of film while I was a photo student at the university. You will be missed!

  3. Good friend and compatriot – We went down this path last year,after Tom closed, I got out eleven years ago and we are still around pursuing other things. Tampa Bay had thirteen stores at one time and now there is only one left about the size of a telephone booth in the next county. Online shopping B&H, local big box, and smartphones and manufacturers made photography an electronic business, somehow the artistry became inane.
    You know I wish you well and i never forgot those drink tickets from the PMA you shared with us many many years ago.

  4. Roger your community will not realize what they are missing until you are gone. All the people who came in “just looking” to get your staff’s advice then saved on sales tax at one of the online retailers are wondering why you are closing. The next couple of months will be lots of emotions for you, I know as I have closed two stores, one I owned outright and the other I was a partner in. Once all is said and done your blood pressure will drop 20 points. The industry and your community will miss you.

  5. You’ve been great Roger and best wishes on the moving on… Certainly will be stopping by to peruse stuff and yak.

  6. mr roger. i didn’t buy a lot of stuff from you but i did enjoy coming in your store and saying hi ya we really went back and forth joking about things.
    hope you and your wife enjoys retirement and still takes some pictures.

  7. Roger – I really enjoyed the years I worked at University Camera. Enjoy your retirement. Very well earned.

  8. Sorry to hear this Roger! You were very good to me over the years when I was in Iowa City. I still have the Photogenic Powerlights I bought from you 25 years ago- still use them every day.

  9. Roger – You and Chris have kept it going long after an accountant would have said to pull the plug, because it was such a great industry to be in. Our customers were our friends, our competitors were our friends, and we turned happy moments into lasting memories. But youre going to find that yes, there is life after retail! Best of luck, my friend.

  10. I am sorry to read of your closing. Your store was my go to place for camera and photo questions. Thank you for a great store and service whenever I walked through the door. I appreciate the knowledge of you and your staff. University Camera will be missed. Best wishes in your retirement.

  11. You’ll be missed Roger. That was certainly a hard decision. I wish you and your wife all the best in retirement. I’ll raise a glass to you and yours. All the best my friend.

  12. Roger Christian is simply the best and is/was my go-to expert for all my questions. He will be missed.

  13. I too am an old photo person. Spent many years in darkrooms and shooting with film cameras. Started part time in a camera store/photo lab in hs. Digital has killed the photo industry but that’s how life works. I can understand your desire to retire but I ask you to consider joining some of the FaceBook film and darkroom groups. Many are being started by young people who could really use you years of experience! So much they don’t know.

    Bob Walden

  14. Roger, You have been an awesome asset to our industry and I have learned much from your wise counsel! I echo what Chris and Tom have already said. We have discovered that we really enjoy getting away from the business and I’m sure you will also. Since we have just been down this road, give me a call if you’d like to discuss tactics. In fact, just call, maybe we can get together outside of the industry doing something completely different! -Dave

  15. I’ve been doing business with Roger for 25 years both buying equipment and repairing cameras for him. Sorry to see University Camera close, but I understand why.

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