Chad Milton downloaded the owners’ manual and tried to make sense of a flash problem he was having with his camera.
“I couldn’t figure out enough to ask the right questions to get the right answer,” admitted the Prairie Village resident.
So he did what thousands of Kansas City area customers have done over the last 70 years. He brought the camera back Crick Camera Shop where he’d bought it, solely because he knew Bill Thomas could help.
That scene won’t be replayed much longer. The shop at 7715 State Line Road will close on Jan. 7, done in by a combination of well-documented forces.
“I have to say brick-and-mortar is having a hard time, what with online sales and free shipping,” said Thomas, who represents the second generation of the family that has owned and operated the camera shop since 1946. “And the photography industry isn’t healthy as a whole, given the rise of digital.”
In addition to sweeping industry change, there’s no third generation of Cricks interested in running the store.
“We’d thought about selling instead of closing, but never found anyone qualified enough to buy it,” Thomas said. “It’s a specialty industry, and you need specialty information to run it.”
Thomas, who teaches photography at the Kansas City Art Institute, has a transition plan for himself which includes more time to pursue his own photography. But he and the store’s co-owner, his sister-in-law Dana Crick, are sad about the career prospects of the store’s four employees.
As far as they know, there will be only one similar, full-scale photography equipment and service store remaining in the Kansas City area, Overland Photo Supply at 8701 Metcalf Ave.
“There used to be more, but one by one they’ve closed,” said Crick. “And now we’ve elected to close, letting Crick be the entity it always was — with our name on it and our business philosophy behind it — and take the posture that we had a wonderful 70 years.”
The Crick store, founded by Bill and Thelma Crick in the Brookside neighborhood, was a typical small-business success story. The founding generation built a loyal customer base by emphasizing service. Bill Crick was even known to run film rolls over to a customer’s house when he got a desperate call on Christmas Day.
Crick’s three children, Dana, Gayle and Stuart, all worked in the store. Gayle met and married Bill, who became the technical heart and soul of the operation.
“Bill led the camera shop into the digital age while simultaneously preserving the art of the printed photograph,” said Dana Crick, the surviving sibling, who lives in Minnesota. “He expanded our photo lab to make fine prints.”
But except for students in photography classes in the Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission schools or relatively few amateur photographers devoted to film, there isn’t sufficient call any more for such film development. Sales of cameras, lenses, accessories, frames and albums “are our best income now,” Crick said.
But that isn’t enough to merit extending the store’s lease, Thomas said. So, like the history of most family-run companies, the business comes to an end.
U.S. business reports indicate that less than one-third of family-owned companies make it through the second generation. And, of those that survive, just about half make it through the third generation.
“What I’ll miss most is helping the customers,” Thomas said. “I will miss working with them to help get good photography. But from a business standpoint, when you have to make a change, you have to make a change.”
Film photography still has its devotees, but film sales took a precipitous dive with the rise of digital, particularly since about 2003 when digital quality improved markedly.
Look no further than the 2012 bankruptcy filing of the Eastman Kodak Co., the pioneering enterprise that made consumer photography popular. When it stopped producing its famous Kodachrome brand, it was a clear sign of industry change.
Smartphone cameras became the medium of choice. A 2015 report by the image-sharing site Flickr said the top five cameras among its users were all smartphones. Sales of point-and-shoot digital cameras fell, too.
And, like all kinds of shoppers, professional and casual photographers alike turned to the internet instead of in-store shopping. Sites like B&H Photo and Adorama grew. Meanwhile, big stores like Best Buy beefed up their camera departments and employee training to help customers.
Some industry officials report a recent small uptick in film sales, collectible cameras and high-end equipment like Leica and Nikon cameras. But that interest isn’t enough, especially when truly dedicated hobbyists are installing their own basement darkrooms instead of using commercial film labs.
At Crick’s, a store-closing sale has begun. Thomas said he’s arranged for a wholesaler to take anything left unsold at the end.
Back in the photo lab behind the Crick retail floor, Christy Burnworth understands why the store is closing, but it doesn’t make it any easier to accept.
“Photo processing is the only career I’ve had,” Burnworth said. She’s spent the last 14 years at Crick’s after working in another photo lab before that. “Looking ahead, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”