NEW PORT RICHEY—As the digital age continues to usurp the mom-and-pop stores of yesteryear, photography shops have become a dying breed.
In fact, the number of independent photography shops dwindled so much so fast that the Photo Marketing Association stopped counting them as a separate category six years ago when there were fewer than 1,900 such stores left nationwide.
But one-time ministry student Jim Smetzer still has faith. After all, he's one of the survivors.
As proprietor of the 18-year-old Pasco Camera Exchange, Smetzer has had to adapt over the years, yet business has remained steady, with about 20 to 25 customers streaming through the shop's doors daily.
"We're very fortunate in that we have not seen major declines when the economy went down, compared to a lot of other stores," Smetzer, 55, said. "Memories are still important to people. And even if the economy is down, people still want some way to record their memories."
Smetzer was introduced to photography by way of his college yearbook. Working on the publication during his four years at Ozark Christian College, he fell in love. When he returned to Clearwater upon graduation, he worked a couple jobs with local camera shops. Soon, he and wife Annette opened up a shop of their own.
Pasco Camera Exchange sells digital cameras ranging from basic "point-and-shoot" models to the more advanced Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras, along with used film cameras, accessories, lenses, flashes, studio lighting and kits, backdrops and camera bags. The shop also offers a number of services, including photo restorations, classes, photo enlargements, film development and prints.
When the Smetzers opened the shop in 1995, the plaza housed an insurance company, a clock repair shop, a card store, travel agents and a candle shop. Now the oldest remaining shop in the plaza, Pasco Camera Exchange is nestled between a unisex salon and an abandoned cellphone shop.
On a recent quiet afternoon, Smetzer gestures behind his counter to what he calls "the museum." A shelf cluttered with antique and outdated cameras sits high above the newer models for sale on shelves below. The oldest is a 1905 Kodak Brownie, which looks more like a box than a camera. The newest addition is a 2002 Sony Mavica digital camera, which operated using a floppy disk.
Smetzer takes photos as a hobby, showing off some new vacation photos on the shop computer.
The Smetzers took a two-week trip to Germany in July, with a $430 Canon camera from the shop in tow. Clicking through the 4,000 photos the couple took, Smetzer reaches one of Bavaria's Neuschwanstein Castle, casually launching into description. It was built by King Ludwig II in the 1800s, he explains, and Cinderella's Castle was modeled after it. When he lands on a photo of the Berlin Wall memorial, he points out where each wall stood, and the "no man's land" in between. Smetzer talks as easily about European landmarks as he does about camera equipment, intimating that he spends about three or four months before his trip researching future destinations. Bringing cameras from the shop along on vacation allows him to test them out and teach future buyers the ins and outs.
Competition for Pasco Camera Exchange hasn't changed much.
"When we opened up, there was Service Merchandise; there was Kmart, which was a much bigger force than it is now; there was Circuit City," Smetzer said. "We had mail order or people making phone calls to big companies to order equipment."
What set his small store apart was that it dealt in used equipment and trade-ins, and handled camera repairs. The shop still offers repairs, along with some used and consignment items, but the bigger draw has been its audio and video transfers, which accounts for 20 percent of their business.
The shop can transfer film, audio, and visual materials to CD and DVD, from a host of outdated media, including VHS, camcorder videos, reel-to-reel audio tape, projector slides, records and casettes.
"There were a lot of people back then who didn't have camcorders. So they'd take the audio tape and set it up at the dining room table and record the family talking at Christmas and things like that," Smetzer said. "You've got these tapes from the '70's and there's Grandma, and Grandma's been gone for many, many years, but you get to hear her voice again."
The big box stores and catalogues of decades past have given way to Best Buy, Walmart, and online shopping. But Pasco Camera Exchange's customers enjoy the personalized service that only a mom-and-pop establishment can offer.
"It boils down to customer service and being able to do the hands-on with people," Smetzer said.
Another facet of the Smetzers' success is that their regular participation in local happenings has afforded them local name recognition and familiarity. Their community involvement is one of the reasons that Pasco Camera Exchange was awarded West Pasco Chamber of Commerce's Small Business of the Year Award in 2009.
Strong growth, staying power and evidence of contributions aiding community projects are the criteria for the award as outlined in a transcript from that year's awards ceremony.
"I know that at almost every event that I go to I see Jim or Annette Smetzer," said Chip Wichmanowski, president of the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce.
The Smetzers conduct a yearly photo contest at the Cotee River Seafood and Blues Fest, sponsor a camera club called the Shutterbugs, and volunteer at various downtown events.
"If the events are successful downtown, it makes New Port Richey more desirable to come to," Smetzer said.
Samantha Fuchs can be reached at (727) 869-6235 or [email protected]