Historic camera business founded by British spy to shut down

June 11, 2015

Owner Len Lyons outside the RG Lewis store in Holborn, London. The shop is due to close on 14 June

London-based store RG Lewis is the sole survivor of a former chain of eight camera stores that took their name from a chemist shop first set up three years before Amateur Photographer (AP) was first published in 1884.

RG Lewis specialises in Leica cameras and is due to close on Sunday.

A statement on the RG Lewis website confirms that the move follows many years of successful trading in the Holborn area.

It adds: ‘However, due to the effects of the internet, and also changes in attitude towards the independent specialist dealer, [owner] Len Lyons has regretfully decided to retire and, therefore, the Holborn shop (at 29 Southampton Row) will close permanently on 14 June 2015.

‘We would like to thank all our loyal customers who have supported us over the many years.’

Lewis worked as a ‘spy’ with his camera in Yemen

It turns out that the business has a fascinating history.

Current owner, Len Lyons, said it can be traced back to a chemist shop called RG Lewis, which first opened in Enfield, north London, in 1881.

The chemists was run by Richard Lewis whose son, Norman, opened a photographic business above the shop and took the trading name of his father’s business.

Norman Lewis was a travel writer and photographer who reportedly spied for the British government during the Second World War and was once a friend of James Bond author Ian Fleming, Lyons recalled.

One of the RG Lewis shops specialised in miniature cameras.

Indeed, a Telegraph obituary of Lewis, who died in 2003 aged 95, states: ‘In 1959, Lewis was sent to Cuba by Ian Fleming, then working for both the Sunday Times and MI6, to discover what were Castro’s chances of ousting the Batista regime.

‘In Mission to Havana, Lewis recounted two memorable meetings: one with Ed Scott, the priapic model for James Bond, who had taken to keeping naked negresses in his office and wearing spent cartridges as cuff-links; the other with Ernest Hemingway, who by now was drinking neat half-pints of Dubonnet. “He told me nothing”,’ wrote Lewis, “but taught me more than I wanted to know”.’

The Telegraph obituary adds that, unbeknown to Lewis, his meeting with Scott in a bar was observed by author Graham Greene, who used the scene in his novel Our Man in Havana.

DSC00022Current owner Len Lyons said he will continue to run the RG Lewis website

‘Sorely missed’

Reacting to news of the closure, Jason Heward, managing director of Leica Camera UK Ltd, said: ‘It is extremely sad to see RG Lewis close and many Leica customers will feel a real sense of loss on hearing the news.

‘All industries need characters and within the photographic trade they don’t come much larger than Len Lyons. I struggle to think of anyone who knows more about the industry and the history of Leica.

‘All things must change and our industry is no different but we do well to remind ourselves that many customers still seek out a far from homogenous experience.

‘Our understanding of the past is key to shaping our present and the future of the industry. I am sure we shall all miss that feeling of being “wet behind the ears” when talking to Len. He has been a great ambassador for the brand and will be sorely missed.’

Founder Norman Lewis went on to write 13 novels and 13 works of non-fiction, according to the Norman Lewis website, which adds: ‘Forgoing a place at university for lack of funds, he used the income from wedding photography and various petty trading to finance travels to Spain, Italy and the Balkans, before being approached by the Colonial Office to spy for them with his camera in Yemen.’

Mike Evans, a loyal RG Lewis customer, photographer and former journalist who wrote about the closure in a blog, told AP: ‘It’s sad to see the end of any independent camera dealer, but the closure of RG Lewis is a particularly significant loss…

‘RGL has an honourable stake in photographic history. I wasn’t too surprised because I knew Len Lyons was looking forward to partial retirement.

‘But I was disappointed that the famous trading brand couldn’t have continued in one form or another.’

Speaking to AP, Lyons, 72, explained that the main reason for his decision to close the store was his retirement from the business.

Lyons does not blame online competition for the closure – though the store’s website may suggest otherwise – but he told AP: ‘All the dealers I’ve spoken to [say that] people come in to have a demo and then buy on the web.’

The owner, who took over the business from Norman Lewis in 1982, added: ‘The [UK] importers are not too interested in the smaller dealers.’

Lyons said he plans to work three days a week at Richard Caplan, a Leica dealer based in Pall Mall.

He decided not to sell the business as he believes the RG Lewis name would no longer hold the attraction it once did.

And keeping the business in the family was not a viable option either, given that he has three daughters with other interests.


The message posted on the RG Lewis website

Since the news first emerged, Lyons has been contacted by people from all over the world, many expressing their regret at the closure of the high-street business.

Lyons said he plans to retain the RG Lewis website, which currently offers discounts on remaining stock.

In his blog, customer Mike Evans noted: ‘Over the past few years I have built up a good relationship with Len, who is unfailingly knowledgeable, courteous and helpful.

‘His little shop in Southampton Row was a regular stop on my travels around London…

‘The demise of RG Lewis is a loss not only for the Leica community but for photographic retailing in general.

‘The store at 29 Southampton Row, Holborn, is one of the last of its kind.’

Leica’s Jason Heward added: ‘Leica has, over the past 12 months, expanded into 10 new retailers within the UK, and is now available in over 35 retailers across the UK.

‘It’s an exciting time for the brand as we head into our one hundred and first year!’

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