Clock Tower Cameras, a small Brighton camera shop doesn't sell the latest DSLRs, is celebrating 20 years in business while other camera shops nationwide continue to close. Nigel Atherton pays a visit to learn the secrets of its success
The Story of Clock Tower Cameras
When Brian Imbery and Eddy Iwanczuk left the Brighton branch of City Camera Exchange in 1995 to set up their own camera shop, the town was already well served with photo retailers – besides CCE there was a Jessops, a Tecno and a couple of other independents.
Fast-forward 20 years and their tiny corner shop in the Bohemian North Laine district is the last one standing, and seems to be thriving, with local celebrities Zoë Ball, Fatboy Slim and comedian Mark Williams among their loyal customers. Yet if you popped in tomorrow to buy one of the latest digital SLRs, you’d be out of luck – Clock Tower doesn’t sell them. So what’s the secret of their success?
‘Well, a degree of luck,’ laughs co-owner Paul Wrede. ‘But also we’ve been cautious, stuck to our core values and grown organically, through word of mouth. We haven’t over-extended. When digital first came in, a lot of shops invested hugely in the new technology and got their fingers burned.’
Clock Tower is the antithesis of the self-conscious minimalism of, say, an Apple store. Occupying the corner of a residential street of small terraced houses, it’s an Aladdin’s cave, with barely a square inch of wall or shelf space unoccupied. Its two windows are packed to capacity: one with accessories, the other with second-hand cameras and lenses, most of them from the pre-digital era.
Paul joined Brian and Eddy shortly after, when Jessops bought out City Camera Exchange. ‘When Jessops took over it wasn’t the same,’ reflects Paul. ‘CCE was a very good company, with a family atmosphere. You felt part of a team, you felt valued as an employee. But that soon changed – with Jessops at that time it was nothing to do with customer focus anymore, it was all about targets. The figures were all that mattered.’
The Place is the Thing
It took a good three or four years to establish the business, during which time Brian left when he became a dad and needed a more reliable income, and they had to move from their original high-street premises after the council sold it to developers.
‘We weren’t sure about this location at first,’ continues Paul. ‘It’s a bit tucked away but we underestimated the value of being on a corner. You get noticed. In a row of shops people walk past, but being on a corner it catches your eye. And not being on the high street has been such a benefit as people see you as a bit of a specialist.’
Clock Tower may be slightly off the beaten track but the shop is just yards away from Queens Road, the main thoroughfare that connects Brighton Station with the town centre and the beach, and down which flows a constant tide of humanity. On that street, just around the corner from Clock Tower, there used to be a large branch of Jessops until they went bust, but perhaps surprisingly, this was an asset to them rather than a threat.
‘Jessops being there was fantastic for us,’ laughs Paul. ‘It did a different thing to us. It sold hardware and did a lot of D&P, neither of which we’ve ever concentrated on. When it went on its buying spree, it took out most of our other competitors, and then when it decided to stop selling second-hand, that was another gift for us.’
Jessops customers who wanted to part-exchange their old SLR for a digital one would be sent round the corner to Clock Tower, enabling them to build up their stock and a reputation for used equipment, for which Brighton has always provided an enthusiastic market.
‘We’re lucky being in Brighton,’ Paul concedes. ‘We have two universities, both offering photography and media courses, plus dozens of language schools, so there are a lot of students and young people who can’t afford the latest kit. Brighton is also quite bohemian and there’s a big retro and alternative culture, all of which makes for a thriving pre-owned market.’
Not all cameras are equal when it comes to buying second-hand. ‘It’s the classic SLRs from the 1960s to the mid-1980s that are in most demand; cameras like the Nikon FM and Olympus OM-2. At the moment there also seems to be a massive demand for Contax T2s – we get people coming in asking for them on a weekly basis. That, and the Ricoh GR1.
‘Medium format is growing too – Hasselblads and especially Rolleiflexes are going back up in price as people rediscover them. We put it down to the Vivian Maier effect. Conversely, late eighties and nineties film SLRs like the Nikon F801 and the Minolta Dynax 700si, which were very capable cameras in their day, attract very little interest, and early digital cameras don’t sell at all.
‘As an example, a customer came in the other day and pointed to a Canon AE-1 that we had in the window for £119.99 with the 50mm lens, and he said, “Do you know, that camera has always been £119.99 ever since it came out. I bought one new in 1981 for £119.99 and every time I’ve seen one since, it’s been £119.99!” By contrast, a top-of-the-range Minolta Dimage bridge camera from 10 years ago that would have sold for £1,499 at the time, would be lucky to fetch £29.99 in the window today.’
Despite the popularity of classic film cameras, quality digital SLRs and lenses are now forming a growing part of their repertoire, but Paul admits they were slow to dip their toes in the water. ‘We stuck with film for quite some time until the digital market settled down,’ he recalls. ‘I remember buying in my first digital SLR, a Canon EOS 300D, which you could still buy new for £899 at the time. I was so nervous about buying it. I got it straight in the window and every day I was so anxious for it to sell because I knew that any day a new one could come out or Canon could knock £100 off the price. Luckily, it sold quite quickly and I was so relieved.’
Nowadays there’s less reticence, and there’s a healthy demand for quality kit such as full-frame Canon and Nikon DSLRs, and pro zooms. But are they not tempted to move into selling new DSLRs?
‘We’ve discussed it many times, but there’s a lot of very aggressive online competition,’ say Paul. ‘There are retailers selling cameras for less than we can buy them in for. We’d have to tie in so much investment in stock that’s constantly dropping in value. I’m not sure our model would work in every town, but here we can get away with being predominantly about accessories and pre-owned kit.’
So what else is hot in the second-hand market at the moment? ‘I think the biggest thing for us is lenses, especially fast primes. You’ve got old screw-fit lenses that, 10 years ago, you’d have to put in the bin, but now with these lens-mount converters people can put them on their compact system cameras, and it’s great teaching people about that. People come in with their Fuji or Sony or Olympus and we stick an adaptor on it and show them some of the old lenses from the 1970s, and they see the results and go “Wow!”.’
It isn’t just classic equipment that has seen a revival in recent years. Film may have dipped in popularity when people started buying digital SLRs but, says Paul, it’s going up again now, and Clock Tower keeps a wide variety.
‘We’re selling more and more film to young people,’ he says. ‘Five or six years ago it was the old boy buying his slide film, but now I’d say 90% of the film we sell is to people in their teens and 20s. The older people come in and see all the film on display and are amazed that we’re still selling it, but the youngsters have a thirst for knowledge about it. They want to know about the characteristics of the film, whether it’s contrasty, or grainy, or saturated.
‘At the moment, instant film is riding a bit of a crest too. We’re selling a lot of both instant cameras and film, and Fujifilm is bringing out new models. The Instax was one of the big hits last Christmas – Fujifilm completely sold out.’
With independent photo retailers currently closing down at a rate of more than one every month, Clock Tower’s story is uplifting and Paul remains upbeat about the future of the small camera shop.
‘Camera sales will, of course, go more and more online, but I think there will always be a place for a small, well-stocked local specialist shop where people can get advice and try things out. If someone comes into Clock Tower with a problem, or needs some little widget for their flash or tripod, nine times out of ten we can help.
‘The secret to succeeding in this business, in my experience, is in having a decent level of knowledge so that customers have confidence when they’re buying from you, and having a rapport with the customers so you build up loyalty.’
Clock Tower Cameras is based at 32 Church St, Brighton BN1 1RL. Website: www.clocktowercameras.co.uk. Tel: 01273 706 010.
The shop will be offering an exclusive 20% discount to AP readers: see our March 28 issue for details, on sale next week.
Over the page, the Clock Tower Cameras team discuss 20 of their favourite pieces of kit from the past two decades. Click below