Central Camera serves 120 years of photographers in downtown Chicago

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The Central Camera store in downtown Chicago has become the heart of a photography community through 120 years of operation and three generations of family ownership.

"Anyone can go online and buy a brand new digital camera. But you kind of get no guidance with that. You get no help with that. You get no knowledge that comes along with it," said camera salesman Johnny Sisson.

For owner Don Flesch, Central Camera is more than just a successful boutique. It's a family legacy.

"I've waited on some people who knew grandpa, and he died in 1933," Flesch said. "Many customers come in second- and third-generations."

Employee experience ranges from four months to over 30 years of working at the shop. With only about a dozen people on staff and a narrow workspace to share, the Central Camera staff is especially tight-knit.

"It's like a family...so with family comes family problems," said sales associate Anna Malek. "But that's the nice thing about Central Camera is that it can be more personal."

Each staff member comes to work with a distinct appreciation for photography. Malek is a recent graduate of Columbia College's cinema program, and enjoys directing films and videos. Sisson comes from a family of photographers.

18-year staff member Dan Hendrickson uses photography to inform his painting. 25-year salesperson Isaiah Williams is a retired CTA photographer who is part of Chicago's CAN TV public access station.

There are only a few camera retail stores left in Chicago, and none of them have the history of Central Camera. Flesch said his business has thrived as one of the only options but wishes that more stores had remained open.

"Camera business has shrunk the last number of years," Flesch said. "There used to be close to 11,000 retail camera stores in the United States. As of about last month, there's 206."

But after 120 years in business, Central Camera is still thriving. The doors are constantly swinging open with a mix of new and regular customers.

"If people need help with trying to figure out what they need camera-wise, that's what we're here for. You can't really get that online," Sisson said. "I hope we're here for many years to come."
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