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.
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.”