Camera shop at end of roll

60-year-old, family-owned Cooper's is selling to Beltsville-based Penn

May 19, 2006|By ANDREA K. WALKER | ANDREA K. WALKER,SUN REPORTER

Matthew and Stephen Cooper tried to hang on to the 60-year-old family photography store as long as they could.

They recently closed an outlet on Reisterstown Road as a cost-saving measure. They switched to the more popular digital equipment.

But in the end, they decided that if they wanted to save the business, they had to sell it.

Yesterday, they closed on a deal to sell Cooper's Camera Mart - with stores on Harford Road in the city's Hamilton neighborhood and at Greenspring Station in Lutherville - to Beltsville-based Penn Camera. Financial details of the deal were not disclosed.

Independent mom-and-pop camera shops nationwide have been buffeted by many of the same technological and business changes affecting the biggest names in the industry, such as Eastman Kodak Co.

"We had to do it now to be able to make sure that we took care of the employees," Stephen Cooper said. "We're very fortunate that we're not going to have a `going out of business' sale. And we're grateful for the fact that they're going to keep the name."

The owners of Penn Camera, also a family business with six stores in the Baltimore-Washington market, said they plan to keep much of the business intact. They won't change the name, and they will keep the sales staff, many of whom have been with the company for decades.

Four back-office people who handle duties such as payroll and accounts receivable will be laid off, however. Those duties will be handled by a central staff at the new headquarters.

"Everybody up there knows the Cooper name. They don't know the Penn name," said Jeff Zweig, president of Penn Camera. "We want the transition to be as seamless as possible."

Brothers Harry and Ben Cooper - Stephen's father and Matthew's grandfather respectively - opened their first store on Harford Road in 1946 after World War II. Ben was an attorney with a photography hobby who served in the Red Cross during the war, the family said. He used to send letters home asking for photography equipment.

After the war, Ben decided he didn't like the people he would have to work with in the field of law, his grandson said. So he joined forces with Harry, who owned his own accounting firm, to open the camera shop.

At first, they sold basic camera supplies such as film. Kodak wouldn't work directly with independent companies at the time, so they would buy their goods from local drug stores and resell them.

"It would clean out their competition and it also gave them inventory," Matthew Cooper said.

Eventually, Kodak allowed Cooper's Camera to sell its products.

The company prospered catering to amateur and professional photographers. But they also have a following of other consumers who liked the time and care the salespeople would take with them. The store was a throwback to retail of years ago when small, familiar businesses were prevalent.

Roy and Lorraine Limmer came to the Harford Road store yesterday to look at digital cameras. The couple, who have shopped at the store more than 20 years, hadn't a clue about what they should buy. A salesperson took an hour showing them their options.

"If you have questions, they take the time to answer them," Lorraine Limmer said. "It's not like at someplace like Best Buy or Circuit City where you talk to one person one minute and another the next."

Donald Oakjones became interested in photography after buying a camera on his honeymoon in the Dutch West Indies. The retired Baltimore police officer, who now teaches high school photography, has bought his cameras and equipment from Cooper's for more than 25 years. "Here they get to know you. And if you have a problem with a piece of equipment, they would take care of it for you," he said.

Despite a loyal following, the company, which has outlasted dozens of other independent photography stores that have been replaced by national chains, began to feel the pressure from increased competition. They were able to adapt quickly to the digital revolution, but digital brought its own complications: People are printing fewer photos because they delete the ones they don't like. And many consumers print their own photos with printers at home or at drug and convenience stores.

It's a problem facing many companies in the industry, particularly those that make a large part of their business processing photos.

"The industry is seeing a shakeout," said Burke Seim, owner of Service Photo Supply Inc. in Baltimore, which does business with The Sun. "It's very, very difficult to remain profitable."

The Cooper cousins decided to sell the business before there was no longer any business. They immediately thought of Penn Camera. The two families had known each other for years and had similar business philosophies. The Zweig family has run its business for 53 years.

The Zweigs had always wanted to move to the Baltimore market, but wouldn't do so as long as the Coopers were in business.

"We've known them for some time, and we felt their company and their goals as a company were the same as ours," Zweig said. "We felt there was a real similarity between our customers and the other values that are important to us."

The Coopers also said they felt their stores would benefit under the ownership of a larger company with greater resources.

Employees of the Harford Road location were somber yesterday about the sale. Most have worked there for years. One employee remembered when he had a heart attack and the company continued to pay him until he recovered. Another talked about working his way up to manager from stock clerk.

The day was especially sad for Marge Sevier.

She started working at the company two days a week 40 years ago and is now the office manager. Her job will be eliminated with the sale. She said she understands it was a business decision, but will miss working for the company just the same.

"This," she said, "has become my family."

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

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