A pilgrimage to Central Camera

Despite our many weekend getaways to Chicago’s Loop, this was the first time we sought out Central Camera. We found it closed on Sunday. But because we were staying over through Monday, we went back.

A pilgrimage to Central Camera

We stepped in, and it felt like stepping into 1948. There were counters on both sides and an aisle down the middle. The left side was crammed with used gear. I dared not dwell. I passed through to the film counter. Oh my gosh, but I’ve not seen that much film for sale in one place since the 1980s.

A pilgrimage to Central Camera

The array of films in stock was impressive. I bought four rolls of Arista.EDU 200. Yes, they carried Arista.EDU from Freestyle Photo! The kind young woman behind the counter wrote my receipt by hand.

I did get one color shot of the exterior, so you can take in the sign’s great shade of green.

Central Camera

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34 responses to “A pilgrimage to Central Camera”

  1. Reinhold Graf Avatar

    It seems you‘ve found paradise ;)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It was fun, to be sure. I’ll go back!

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Certainly a destination Camera Store…when I lived in Chicago, I used to stop by when I was downtown to look at the used pile. Doesn’t look like much, but back in the film days they did a lot of pro film business ‘on account’ out of the back door, so you never saw it….

    I was always using view cameras at work, so the big deal for me was Darkroom Aids up on Lincoln, long gone. They had old used stuff you needed to run a photo studio and process film, and they made their own line of inexpensive stainless darkroom sinks. I bought a few lenses there that looked like nothing, but they had been used by other pros before and the results were fabulous! I remember my boss buying a beat-to-hell Tessar in a Packard shutter for fairly a lot of money, but when I used it, it was magical!

    Digital killed those days, glad to see Central is still keeping their head up…they must own the building…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It was great fun to go in. I dared not linger or I would have dropped a thousand dollars in the joint. I came out with a few rolls of film.

      I wonder what happened to the stock of Darkroom Aids? I’ll bet they had a lot of lovely gear as they shut down.

  3. DougD Avatar

    Great sign! This is a danger store, as great as it is you must resist lest you completely fall under it’s spell.
    I am told Chicago Music Exchange is like that, of course I will go if I ever make it to Chicago.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Someday when I have $500 burning a hole in my pocket I will allow myself to linger at their used camera counter.

  4. mike connealy Avatar

    I wish some aspiring business school grad student would undertake a study of why some photo stores like Central Camera survive while others do not. The closest thing to Central we had in Albuquerque, Kurt’s Cameras, shut down about a year ago. They tried marketing digital cameras along side the older film stuff, but that was evidently not a viable business model.
    There are presently two stores left in Albuquerque that cater primarily to the film crowd. One specializes in film processing and printing. The other sells a wide range of old gear. Both seem to be doing ok at the moment, but I am not sure why, or how sustainable their operations are.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Off the top of my head I can guess at some factors. Stores in big cities have a larger pool of customers to draw from. Overhead is a factor, I’m sure; perhaps (as another commenter said) Central owns its building, which reduces overhead. Expectation of profit margin is another. A mom-and-pop is more likely to do a “making a living” business at low margins.

      We have a camera store here in Indy, Robert’s. They have an online presence too, which I’m sure is a critical part of their business model. They seem to be doing fine.

      I have had a half-baked dream of opening a store that sells used gear and processes film. I’d love to do not just C41 but b/w and E6. But I’m not sure I could make a go of it in Indianapolis; I’m not sure the market is large enough to support it.

      1. Joe shoots resurrected cameras Avatar

        Hey you could always have a processing machine for C-41 and do hand-processing for everything else. Mike’s Camera in Boulder is I think the only E-6 process in Colorado so they do a lot of business for that I’m sure, I drop things off at the local Colorado Springs store and they ship stuff up to Boulder and back 3 times a week. The other local camera store, Cameraworks, does most of my processing, and they hand-develop black & white once a week, so it’s possible to do it that way. Get some of the big Paterson tanks and stick with using only one developer, it might work. Jim’s Camera…I like that idea!

      2. DougD Avatar

        I’ve always wanted to start a classic motorcycle shop, but with no customers so I just surround myself with bikes and tools, and shoot the breeze with friends…

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          The trick with all these dreams is making enough money to pay the bills!

      3. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        Jim knows I’m not a big fan of Indy, but “plus one” for Roberts Camera. Milwaukee had far more professional business going on 40 years ago than Indy, and really big pro camera suppliers, but for some reason, they never made the digital cut. Robert’s is the type of pro shop that was prevalent in a lot of medium sized cities, and I’ll bet it one of the few that still exist in a city that size today. Can’t say enough about their “old school” pro customer hand-holding….

      4. Dan Cluley Avatar
        Dan Cluley

        I just bought a lens from Robert’s, didn’t realise they were in Indianapolis. Does explain the quick shipping.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Yup. On St. Clair St. just east of Delaware.

  5. Olli Thomson Avatar

    My wife’s from Chicago and we go back there for family visits from time to time but I must admit I had never heard of this place before. I will definitely have to pay a visit next time we’re back.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Well then consider this post a public service announcement! It’s on Wabash between Adams and Jackson.

  6. James Thorpe Avatar

    Great store… I always drop by when I’m in Chicago. One of their employees, Johnny Sisson, is one of three hosts on the Classic Lenses Podcast. Definitely worth a listen.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Oh what fun, I had no idea that podcast even existed. I’m not much of a podcast listener — probably ought to explore what film photo podcasts are out there.

  7. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    I love real camera stores. I made an effort to stop in and patronize two while I was i the Northwest this past year. And I try and do business online with as many small owner/operator camera shops as possible.

    In the 1990s, I spent way too much time (and money) at Lewis Camera Exchange in Tempe, Arizona. It was a Mom & Pop operation with a well stocked used department, darkroom supplies and lots of film. Lewis Camera, unfortunately, did not survive too far into the digital age. I miss that place.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I try to do online business with small shops as well. I buy film mostly from the Film Photography Project, for example.

  8. dionyb Avatar

    I’ve heard about Central Camera and would like to visit it one day. Hopefully I can do it in the next 2 to 3 years while my son is at university in the Midwest.There’s a used camera and film store on Oahu that I frequent it’s called Treehouse and the photo lab I’ve used is Hawaii Pacific Photo. As far as I know they are the only ones on island.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      At least you have those places! Many medium-sized cities here on the “lower 48” don’t have any camera stores.

  9. Richard Kraneis Avatar

    Great place in my home town.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It is!

  10. Dan Cluley Avatar
    Dan Cluley

    Glad to see Central Camera is still there. I bought a 100 mm Argus C3 lens there in 2002 or 2003. Haven’t had a chance to get back since.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Here’s hoping you get to go back one day.

  11. Bart Avatar

    Today’s post made me realize I hadn’t been down to Central Camera since I ditched my old 1955 Miranda the day I bought my first iPhone — ten years after everybody else had one — so I got it back out of storage and will take it down to the shop, where I first bought it — used — in 1990.

    The pictures it took were so crisp and sharp if you took the time to center the needle in the center of the pincher thing. The real reason I gave it up was its weight — it weighs about five pounds — and its size. You can’t slip this baby into your pocket.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      And so, your Miranda comes full circle!

  12. Peggy Avatar

    I would love to visit that shop. I am going to Japan in May so will go to Suzuki Camera in Yokohama. They have a great collection of everything.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Haven’t you written about Suzuki Camera? You wrote about some camera shop you visit — it looked delicious.

      1. Peggy Avatar

        Yes I did, I am sure it will pop up if you do a search on the blog. And yes it is :-)

  13. jacullman Avatar

    Oh they are great! Been going there for years. The owner (who took over after his old man retired) gave my son a point and shoot camera (Andy was in first grade and he loved it). They even had a guy who provided same day delivery to customers. In 2006 my camera died and I had a huge assignment that evening. Ordered a Nikon D40 over the phone at ten in the morning and it was in my hands by noon. The delivery guy is gone as are the really, really old timers, many of whom were avid photo junkies. They were patient with customers – and generously shared their expertise. I don’t know how long Central Camera will be able to survive in the Amazon-based retail environment. I hope forever. They are the last of the storefront camera retailers that were up and down Wabash Avenue. Students from the nearby School of the Art Institute and Columbia College are probably their best customers. They’re always busy….

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I love these stories of Central Camera! And two-hour delivery — Amazon, top that!

      Always very good to hear from you.

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