Central Camera went up in flames amid George Floyd unrest. The Loop store’s owner isn’t angry, he’s recreating his ‘living museum.’

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When Don Flesch watched his family’s 122-year-old business, Central Camera, burn during the civil unrest that followed the police killing of George Floyd, he vowed to rebuild even before firefighters extinguished the blaze.

One year later, Central Camera is still boarded up under its iconic neon sign. But the company is open for business in a temporary space next door and preparing to begin work on the interior of its longtime home on Wabash Avenue in the Loop, with hopes of reopening by late August.

Though the fire left a blank slate, third-generation owner Flesch, 73, is hoping to recreate a store that was like “a living museum,” an homage to bygone eras of photography and one of a dwindling number of bricks-and-mortar camera stores in the U.S.

One of the store’s many historical displays held Kodak cameras dating back to the 1880s and 1890s, another accordionlike view cameras. There was a case for movie cameras from the early 1900s and another for cameras from iconic brands like Leica, Hasselblad and Rollei.

“I want to get as close to the original as I can. People come from all over the world to see us and our sign,” he said. “There’s so few camera stores left.”

Central Camera was one of many Chicago businesses that sustained heavy damage during the civil unrest that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota last year.

On May 30, 2020, Flesch rushed to the store after a break-in triggered the store’s alarms to discover a crowd of thousands.

He watched from across the street as people carried out bags of his merchandise. Then a group ran out, followed by black smoke that drifted out the front door and hovered in front of the shop’s neon sign.

Fire trucks arrived within minutes but the flames burned until the following morning. The total damage was estimated at roughly $3.5 to $4 million, according to Flesch.

In an interview with CBS 2 as he watched firefighters work that night, Flesch, unflappable, expressed no anger at the people who destroyed his business.

“We’re going to rebuild it and make it just as good or better,” he told CBS 2. “I’m not depressed at all. We lost inventory, no lives were lost.”

Flesch said he is still working with Central Camera’s insurance company, and though it likely won’t cover all the damage and costs of rebuilding, it will be “enough to survive.”

Plenty of camera stores disappeared in recent years without those challenges.

There are 785 bricks-and-mortar camera businesses in the U.S., down from 2,029 in 2012, according to a May report from research firm IBISWorld.

Among those that closed was Chicago-based Calumet Photographic, which abruptly filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection and closed its 14 stores after 75 years in business in 2014. C & A Marketing bought the company out of bankruptcy but the last three stores reportedly closed in 2016.

Camera sales have been declining ever since smartphones put them in consumers’ pockets, said Ben Arnold, a technology industry analyst at market research firm The NPD Group. Initially they only competed with point-and-shoot cameras, but as smartphones have grown more sophisticated, they have put pressure on sales of higher-end cameras too, he said.

Specialty stores also face growing competition from online retailers and big chains like Best Buy and Target.

Stores that have stuck around, like Central Camera, give customers things they can’t get from big chains, like expert advice, services and specialty products, Arnold said. But e-commerce has grown even more during the pandemic. About 60% of all dollars spent on technology are spent online, up from 44% at the end of 2019, Arnold said.

“I do think there’s a future, but I think a lot of the business has to come from online,” he said.

Most of Central Camera’s sales come from its bricks-and-mortar store, but that’s the way Flesch prefers doing business. Employees can talk to customers about what they need and teach them about different options.

“There has to be a conversation rather than here it is, hit a button and buy it,” he said.

Whether to rebuild was never a question for Flesch, who said he is determined to carry on a family tradition that started in 1899. That’s when Flesch’s grandfather, Albert Flesch, who emigrated from Hungary at age 13, opened Central Camera after working in the photo department at a nearby department store. Flesch started working at the store while a student in the 1950s.

Within a few weeks of the fire, Flesch and a few employees were making sales from tables set up in front of the store. By fall they moved into the vacant former health foods store next door. Its sign is now covered with a green Central Camera banner and the sales floor packed with cameras, lenses, photographic film and printing materials.

The goodwill generated by Flesch’s response to the destruction helped. A GoFundMe campaign brought in $34,000 in one hour and has since surpassed $225,000. Others donated used camera equipment for Central Camera to fix up and sell, including one person who sent 500 cameras.

Operations are still limited: the temporary store is open just three days a week, though Flesch plans to add a fourth day soon. While he doesn’t expect foot traffic in the Loop to fully recover until offices reopen and tourism bounces back, more customers are returning, and he never considered moving. Customers know the Wabash Avenue location, where Central Camera has been since 1929.

A room behind the temporary store’s sales floor holds thousands of cameras and other items — some donated, others pulled from the burned store. Roughly 11,000 items were recovered, all of which had to be cleaned and sanitized.

Flesch hasn’t had a chance to go through them all to see what will be salvageable, but he did recover two key items. One was a framed letter his grandfather sent to a customer in 1900, thanking him for his order. The second was a Kodak folding camera — the first Central Camera sold, according to Flesch. Both items were later returned by customers.

For years, the camera sat in the store’s front window, and Flesch spotted it the night of the fire. A firefighter tried to keep Flesch away from the windows, but Flesch said he called “What’s that?” to distract him and grabbed the camera when the firefighter turned to look.

In the year that followed, Flesch said his attitude from that night never wavered. He hates the thought that Floyd’s memory will be linked with his death and the destruction that followed.

But Flesch was never angry.

“From the moment it happened, I thought about moving forward,” he said.

lzumbach@chicagotribune.com

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