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After 74 years, Idaho Camera will close its doors for the last time this week

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Idaho Camera, a family-owned business that has operated in Boise for 74 years, is closing. 

Founded in 1946, the business has been owned and managed by three generations the Nagel family. During the last decade, declining camera sales, kindled by new technology and the rise of e-commerce, sent the business on a downward trend. This year, that decline accelerated as the novel coronavirus pandemic forced a temporary shutdown and disrupted camera supply chains, which have yet to fully recover. 

“It’s been very difficult in recent years, with the changes in the industry and the changes in retail,” said co-owner and president Dennis Nagel, who ran the business with his brother Patrick, until Patrick’s retirement. “We’ve been trying to diversify and increase some areas of our business. And we had hoped this year that we could make another step forward in that regard, but then 2020 happened.”

The business is clearing out its inventory and offering discounts up to 70% before its last day on Thursday. 

“It’s not fun,” Nagel said. “It’s hard to give up on a family business.”

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Changing industry

Remaining goods dwindle at the last Idaho Camera store in Boise on Orchard St. Photo: Brian Myrick/Idaho Press

The camera industry experienced a major shift during the last decade, Nagel said. New technology brought digital photography, cellphones with sophisticated cameras and digital content-sharing platforms, such as social media and email.

“It used to be, you shot your roll of film and you got your pictures printed … and then you would take the ones you liked and you might put it in a frame, you might put it on a wall, you might … keep it in your wallet so you can show your friends the pictures of your baby boy,” Nagel said. “And now, we’ve gone from printing pictures more so to sharing pictures.”

Idaho Camera tried to adapt and diversify, investing in new photofinishing services, such as digital prints from mobile devices, and targeting outdoor photographers with a new travel section of the store.

Camera sales continued to decline. According to data from the Camera and Imaging Products Association, a trade group, digital camera sales have declined 87% since 2010. In particular, sales of point-and-shoot cameras, formerly a significant portion Idaho Camera’s business, have dropped, which Nagel attributes to the popularity of cellphones with cameras. Idaho Camera formerly sold 14 models of point-and-shoot cameras made by Fujifilm, the store’s most popular brand, and now it sells one, Nagel said.

What sales are left are being gobbled up by online retailers, which offer comparatively low prices and possess a seemingly unlimited inventory.

“Pricing, they have an advantage, with the overhead and everything else — they don’t have brick-and-mortar stores,” Nagel said. “Selection, they can have everything in the world, where we can’t put everything in the world in this building.”

Those conditions combined with the pandemic ushered the small business’ demise. When the store reopened after a two-month shutdown, the owners did not foresee a rebound.

“We don’t see growth for a long time going forward,” Nagel said. “So, it put us in a position where we made the decision to close the business.”

A 1966 ad in the Borah Senator student newspaper.

The closure leaves a hole in the Boise market where local photographers would find photography equipment, printing, expertise, training and facilities, all under one roof. Idaho Camera was the last business of its kind in the city. 

Dale Toweill, 69, of Boise, is a longtime Idaho Camera customer. A hobbyist wildlife photographer and biologist by training, Toweill went to Idaho Camera for repairs, travel accessories and equipment to outfit his home photo studio. He also taught classes through the store’s seminar program. Toweill said he doesn’t know where he’ll find those services in the future.

“It was a shop that really catered to a niche market,” he said. “There is no other local store you can go to and learn about the new lenses … and get the insider information from people who know and repair cameras. It’s been a standby in Idaho, and I’m sorry to see it go.”

The closure also marks a turning point within the family that has run the store since Robert Nagel, Dennis and Patrick’s father, founded it 74 years ago.

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‘True Family Business’

Robert Nagel, a Chicago native, was stationed at Gowen Field during World War II, where he was an U.S. Army Air Forces sergeant, bombardier trainer and projectionist at the airfield movie theater. After the war, Robert stayed in Boise and opened Idaho Camera with two friends, who eventually moved on to other ventures, making Robert sole owner. 

“He was a big photography person, big photo buff,” Dennis said of his father, who died in 1998. “Dad was also the world’s best salesman. He was quite the guy.”

It was inevitable that a second generation of Nagels would take over the family business. Dennis joined the business full-time in 1981 in his late twenties, after working for several years with Boise-based Morrison-Knudsen, a former engineering and construction company, known for building the Hoover Dam, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and other major infrastructure projects. Patrick joined the business in the mid-1970s, after serving as a pilot in the Air Force.

Dennis Nagel said Idaho Camera is a “true family business.”

“Cousins have worked here, nephews have worked here and nieces have worked here,” he said. “You know, at some point … almost everyone has worked here in the family.”

Some employees are practically family due to their tenure there — current employees have worked there between seven and 40 years, Dennis Nagel said. 

Dennis’ son Mike Nagel, 38, was next in line to take over the business. A vice president, Mike has been “very involved” in decision-making at the store, Dennis said. Mike’s wife, Sara, manages Idaho Camera’s photo laboratory.

Mike is sad to see the store closing, but he’s captured the event through an optimistic lens. 

“The fact that we’ve had this successful business for 74 years and been a part of this community and provided the service to help people explore their photography has been a very good thing,” he said. “I think in that regard, this business has been a tremendous success because we’ve done a lot for this community for a very long time.”

Idaho Camera will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. for its last day Thursday. The store is located at 1310 N. Orchard St. in Boise.

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Ryan Suppehttps://www.idahopress.com/users/profile/ryansuppe/
Ryan Suppe is a reporter for Meridian Press, Kuna-Melba News and The Idaho Press. Follow him on twitter, @salsuppe.

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