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Film Photography Perseveres in 120-Year-Old Central Camera

Mary Grace Ritter | The PhoenixCentral Camera caters to photography fanatics and novices alike. The business has been providing a modern-day haven of old-school cameras, film and equipment for the people of Chicago for 120 years.

Over the past century, Chicago has transformed dramatically. Concrete skyscrapers rose tens of stories from the ground into the clouds. The CTA ‘L’  tracks paved their path underground, as well as above. All these years, one shop stood the test of time serving customers old and new — Central Camera.

Sandwiched between Al’s Italian Beef and Kramer’s Health Food Central, Central Camera (230 S. Wabash Ave.) first opened its doors in 1899 — six decades after the invention of photography. Hungary native Albert Flesch opened the business after starting his photography career at Siegel-Cooper, a former Chicago department store, according to the store’s website. 

Since its inception, Central Camera offered commercial film developing and a wide selection of film cameras, photography equipment and darkroom tools. 

Once located at 31 E. Adams St., the prosperous camera shop moved its storefront in 1929 to its current location on South Wabash Avenue in what was once a piano store, according to its website. 

A plethora of film and digital cameras greet visitors the moment they step foot through the door of this 120-year-old camera store. Film, digital and polaroid cameras are crammed into glass-encased showcases flanking the store’s entrance hall. 

A second door leads into the store itself, its walls and display cases lined with film and digital cameras and lenses of every variation. The long, narrow shop is packed to the brim with photography equipment, from camera straps and lens cases to chemicals for a darkroom. 

To some, it might look like clutter but to others, it’s a vintage heaven. 

“I love the way [Central Camera] looks,” Nick Kranjec, 22, said. “Especially when I really screw stuff up and the photos still come out looking cool. It’s super exciting to get new photos developed.”

Located near Columbia College, the shop serves many photography students looking for cameras and darkroom equipment, according to Dan Hendrickson, who has worked in camera sales at Central Camera since 2001.

“It’s the diversity of product and the service that we have [that makes us so unique],” Hendrickson said. “We have the whole darkroom department with chemistry paper — all the stuff that the students [we work with] need [for] learning photography in the classes, so that’s one big part of our business.”

As the photography industry grew and evolved with the rapidly changing technological world, Central Camera began offering digital cameras and equipment. 

“We’ve always helped people get into photography from day one — giving advice and coaching and teaching and so forth from just over the counter,” Hendrickson said. 

As decades passed, Central Camera was handed down from generation to generation. Albert’s grandson, Albert “Don” Flesch, currently runs the store and he does so the old-fashioned way — with pen and paper. 

“He’s a character, not too tech-savvy some of the time,” sales associate Charlie Ezaki said. “That’s why everything is still pen and paper; it’s all in the receipts. … There’s very little, if any, electronic records here.”

Ezaki said he has worked at Central Camera since graduating high school in 1998. He fits right into Central Camera’s family-owned theme as his father worked there from 1985 to 2009. Ezaki said the store’s current owner — who he said he thinks of as “Uncle Donny” — is a mentor to him. 

“I learned a lot about working here and [how] business is done, the way things are done here,” Ezaki said. 

Central Camera runs in the Flesch family, and familial dynamics extend to the way the store is run. Anna Malek, a sales associate who has been working at the store since November 2018, said it has developed a strong base of loyal, regular customers since it’s one of the last shops that offers film services. 

“We see the same faces all the time,” Malek said. “It’s really nice because you can get personal and we can share ideas, share tips, you know, just see people that we care about. I think there’s a certain charm to that because we’re a family-owned business so our customers eventually become our family.” 

Ezaki echoed Malek’s feelings and said Central Camera is comparable to someone’s local bar. 

“It’s just like going into to your neighborhood bar all the time,” Ezaki said. “Hang out, get a roll of film, talk with us for a bit and that’s it.”

Central Camera is open 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays. Information about cameras, photography equipment and services is available at www.centralcamera.com.

This feature was reported in cooperation with Loyola’s Reporting Basics II class.

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