Nobody in Dexter had a New Year’s resolution for the closure of beloved longtime business Huron Camera, but that’s just the way things worked out. After pluckily hanging on for years and years into the age of the Internet and digital photography, servicing countless professional and hobbyist photographers along the way, Huron Camera put the lens cap on and closed the door on the dark room for the final time on Dec. 30 when the business day came to a close at 6 p.m.
It was the last business of its kind in Washtenaw County — a physical camera and photography store where a staff of professionals were on hand to talk shop with hard-boiled shooters or offer guidance and advice to novices just delving into the world of the rapid fire shutter.
Some folks took note of the Huron Camera website’s absence from the Internet since this past summer. Everyone in the community will miss this downtown Dexter business anchor.
Signs posted in the front windows of the building tell customers to call (734) 426-4654 “persistently” in order to pick up their items that were left in the store upon closing.
Kim Covert, the board president of the Dexter Area Chamber of Commerce, released a statement on behalf of the chamber Jan. 2.
“We are always sad to see businesses leave our area,” Covert said. “Huron Camera will leave a large void in the downtown in many ways. We wish the owners the best of luck in their future endeavors.”
Local residents reacted to the closure on the We Love Dexter Facebook page, reminiscing about their memories at the business.
Alice Morrison commented, “I loved the window display of the villages at Christmas time! (I) was so sad when they stopped that!”
“When my kids were little, I would take them to get their picture with Santa with all three of us,” said Vickie Bennett, a former Huron Camera customer. “It was our family picture every year, and it was a free 5×7 that I would pick up at Huron Camera. Being a low-income single mom, these pictures are priceless. (I’m) sad to see the store close!”
Mark O’Brien, a resident of Ann Arbor, has been an avid photographer since he was 12-years-old. O’Brien also runs The Random Camera Blog, posting a tribute to the store on Dec. 31 titled, “The Last One Standing…Closes. Huron Camera, RIP Dec. 2014.”
In the post, O’Brien wrote, “For those of us that frequented the store, it’s like losing an old friend. An old friend that has been on life support and slips away, quietly, into the night.”
O’Brien wrote about a memorable experience he experienced at the store in 2001.
“I was teaching 4-H kids about photography, and I called Huron Camera to see if I could get some expired film for the children to use in the projects,” O’Brien wrote. “Not only did we get expired film, we got a lot of it, and of course, it was all still fresh by my standards. It really helped the kids out, and I never forgot the store’s generosity.”
O’Brien also wrote of the excitement he experienced scouring used bins of camera parts for buried treasures.
“It’s that moment when the blood rushes to your head and the money flies from your wallet and your new-found prize comes home with you,” O’Brien wrote. “That’s what made those forays to Huron Camera fun. I’ll miss the place, and like it or not, the place had character, charm, and its loss will be felt as one less gathering place for people with shared interests.”
Shawn Keough, the mayor of Dexter, expressed his thoughts on the closure of the business in a statement released Jan. 2.
“I was sorry to hear about Huron Camera closing their business,” Keough said. “They were a unique destination in Dexter for many years and I am sure their customers will miss having access to this store. They were a great resource for anyone with an interest in photography. I would like to thank them for being a longtime member of the Dexter Business community.”
Husband and wife, Jim and Lori Sprague, have been coming to Huron Camera since 1989. They spoke to We Love Dexter staff outside of the closed store on Jan. 2.
Jim Sprague estimates that he has purchased between 45 and 50 cameras from Huron Camera over the years for himself and his employer, an engineering investigation company in Ann Arbor. Jim said he always had fabulous service whenever he came to the business.
“The owners and the longtime employees here were quite knowledgeable and gave you lots of attention,” Jim said. “It was just a fun place to browse around particularly because they carried not only new model cameras, but they did quite a thriving business in used equipment.”
Jim said Huron Camera would repair old cameras and had countless bins of camera parts containing camera cases, lenses, tripods and other related items.
“I’ve got a rather substantial collection of stuff I’ve picked out of the bins over the years,” Jim said.
While he enjoyed coming to the store, Jim said he felt the store’s closure was inevitable in the age of the Internet and digital cameras.
“It was a great place. They did a good faith effort in trying to make the transition into the digital realm and they actually did okay at it, but this is just one area where the brick-and-mortar approach has a huge hurdle to overcome with respect to the cost pressure of the Internet. That’s my opinion as to what did them in. It’s a real shame. I’m going to miss this place terribly.”
Lori Sprague had fond memories of a different sort at the store. She smiled as she recalled the massive display of Christmas village buildings that former co-owner, Milt Campbell, put in the window display each year. Lori said she used to take their kids to see it when they were little.
“It just filled the whole window and it was fascinating,” Lori said. “It had all kinds of little moving things and figures. That was a pretty sweet memory and I liked that little hometown touch.”
Mark Olexa has been good friends with current owner, John Kingsley, since 1977. Olexa, a resident of Dexter, has also done maintenance work at Huron Camera for 4 years. He said the recession and Internet sales were tough for the business around the time Kingsley purchased it a few years ago. Olexa reiterated the opinion that the decline in film sales and film development due to digital camera technology also hurt revenue.
He added that people should consider the benefits of putting money into their local businesses to support their community.
Olexa also has fond memories of the Christmas display. He said it took between two and three months to set up each year, and it inspired him to start his own display at home.
“It made Dexter this quaint little village with all of the nuances of the days of yesteryear,” Olexa said.
“It’s sad to see. It’s like the passing of the baton, but not really,” Olexa said. “There’s no future plans for any brick-and-mortar camera store in Washtenaw County that I know of.”
The old guard
Former co-owner and founder Milt Campbell said he first started the business with nine other people in 1970. By the time he sold Huron Camera to Kingsley a few years ago, the store was down to three owners.
After Campbell sold the business, he said he still helped out around the store for a couple of years.
Campbell began his career related to cameras right out of high school, starting at Argus, an Ann Arbor-based camera company that was founded in 1936.
“It’s kinda sad. It was a great business. We had thousands of great customers. The customers were the biggest thing that always kept us very busy. They were almost like family. You would see the mothers and fathers come in for film processing and pretty soon you would see their children coming. So, I’ve seen a couple of generations of people coming there.”
“I enjoy them very much, because they were all like family. There were so many of them that were so loyal for all those years. I really miss the customers and the employees that we had.”
“I just feel badly for it going out of business because it was just really nice place for photographic equipment. We sold thousands and thousands of cameras over the years, and we used to process 150–200 rolls (of film) a day.”
According to Campbell, the ‘Huron’ in Huron Camera came from Huron River Drive, where they first located the business.
At one time, Campbell said Huron Camera had stores in Saline, Chelsea, Jackson and Battle Creek in addition to the Dexter location, which once employed around 20 people.
Campbell said people would drive from several towns over, some even coming by busloads, to see the annual Christmas window display.
Campbell said he was proud of the quality of the prints Huron Camera made for customers, using high-quality paper and ink.
“We had some of the best printers in the state as far as making pictures. We always used the best paper that was available so pictures would last for many, many years.”
Campbell said the business used to receive 175–200 cameras for service from all around the country each week, but fortunes turned and the shop was starting to decline before he sold the business to Kingsley.
“The Internet was really starting to hurt (business) because no one pays sales tax. You sell a $1,000 camera and have $60 in sales tax. We just couldn’t compete. That was one of the biggest downfalls of being in business in this state.”
As more and more people began to use Huron Camera as a showroom for online retailers, the number of dedicated customers relative to the number of people using Huron Camera’s staff expertise to fully utilize their online purchases became too imbalanced, to the point that the business couldn’t continue to make ends meet.
Campbell reiterated his appreciation for those dedicated customers who stuck with and supported Huron Camera for so many years. He will always cherish the mental snapshots he has of those special people that his business served throughout the years.
We Love Dexter staff has been unable to reach current owner, John Kingsley. We will update the article when we are able to reach him.