NEW PORT RICHEY — The merchandise walls and racks in the small shop are jammed with lens filters, camera straps and bags, photo lighting equipment and scores of other gadgets for photographers.
Behind the counter are rows of camera bodies and lenses, long ones, short ones — silver, black. One might think they’d stepped into a camera shop, except we all know those don’t exist anymore, right?
“We’re the only one left between here and the Sunshine Skyway,” said Jim Smetzer, referring to dedicated camera stores of the locally owned, mom-and-pop variety.
The obituaries prove it. Abner’s Camera Exchange, in downtown St. Petersburg passed away in 2005. North Tampa Photography’s store on Bush Boulevard entered the great business beyond in 2016. Lakeshore Camera Exchange, in Palm Harbor, shuttered the same year.
Smetzer and wife Annette opened Pasco Camera Exchange in 1995 on Main Street, just a couple of doors down from the former New Port Richey Camera and Studio, which operated in the Main Street Gateway Plaza between 1972 and 1985. Because of the proximity, many confuse the two shops, said Smetzer.
“I had a guy come in one day after we opened, and I asked how he’d heard about us,” recalled Smetzer. “He said it was because we’d always been here.”
While not the same store, Smetzer said he’s happy to carry on the tradition of a camera store on Main Street, but even more happy to carry on the tradition of camera stores. Indeed, do a web search for one of afore mentioned defunct local camera stores and the website Yelp notes that it is closed. Click the link labeled to “Find a similar spot,” and a shop in Orlando, and another in Bradenton shows up. The third suggestion is the Wal-Mart Photo Center.
“That’s the way it is these days,” said Smetzer. “We’re a dying breed and the big stores are taking over.”
But the big-boxes and internet sellers don’t offer the expertise or customer service a local shop can, said Annette Smetzer, who works at the shop with her husband. With a sales and customer service background herself, Annette said, “people still want that; they want someone who will spend time with them.”
The couple’s shop serves more than its customers, by being active in the community and Main Street and downtown initiatives, as well as volunteering time. Their shop was awarded the 2008 Florida Main Street Outstanding Business of the Year award, taking the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the year award the following year.
Smetzer, who worked in a couple a camera shops in Pinellas before he opened Pasco Camera Exchange, said he was always amazed at how people from as far away as Hernando County were traveling to Pinellas.
“I saw there was a need for something closer (to those northern regions),” said Smetzer. He knew it could work, but not everyone was convinced that opening a camera store at a time when most of them were fading away was a good idea.
“I had an Olympus (camera) rep in ’95 ask me what I was doing,” said Smetzer. “He said all the small stores he was visiting were closing and I was opening.”
Some 23 years later Smetzer has not only held on, he’s built a loyal following. In addition to services not offered elsewhere — like retouching, digitizing film and movies onto DVD, stocking professional gear and handling camera repairs — big retailers squeeze photo equipment into their electronics departments, he says. And they can’t compete with the selection he offers.
Web sellers have inventory but are impersonal in a market segment where digital is spawning more technical questions than ever. In addition, most of these outlets don’t support film photography at all, he said, which is a niche his shop fills by selling film, offering processing and used film cameras.
Film is a small percentage of his focus, and Smetzer’s inventory reveals that he’s fully on board with digital photography. A photographer for many years, he sometimes gets nostalgic for the color depth and the “feel and look” of film but admits that digital cameras are making it easier to make good pictures.
“You can see what you have right away,” he said. “The immediacy and knowing if you got what you were trying to get rather than finding out that you didn’t get it until later is great.”
Eliminating the cost of film is another big plus, though Smetzer concedes it may be producing to a less disciplined approach to photography.
“If you shoot a thousand pictures, you know you’re going to get a good one,” he said. “It’s something you couldn’t (afford) to do with film.”
With the technology advancing so fast, how does Smetzer future-proof his business? Aren’t cell phones, with their ever-better cameras likely to replace digital cameras?
Smetzer doesn’t think so. There will always be people who want the ability to have a lot of lenses and other accessories to take their photography to the “next level” once they get the bug, he said. He does see a trend away from cheaper point-and-shoot digital cameras, however, something he attributes to cell phones.
“They (cell phones) seem to be affecting the (sales of) cameras in the $150 to $200 range,” Smetzer said.
Smetzer said those looking to get into a good digital camera system with interchangeable lenses should budget about $500. The price goes up from there, and some of the high-end equipment he sells can get pricey but compared to the $10,000 a camera commanded at the start of the digital camera age, they are a bargain.
Where photography goes from here is hard to predict, admits Smetzer. Digital technology changes fast; obsolescence sneaks up faster and values always are in flux. Then there’s the hot debate about which sensor format to invest in. But perhaps that’s why a place like Pasco Camera Exchange (still) exists.
Historically, it hasn’t been about what camera shops sell, but about what they give away for free: advice and someone to talk to about photography. Smetzer is keeping that history alive.