Much More than a Store: Independent Camera Shops...

--Keith R. Sbiral

First let me come clean on something.  I wanted to travel to Japan to see camera shops.  I’ve followed Bellamy Hunt (a.k.a. The Japan Camera Hunter) and his website for years…and a few times I’ve even been incredibly tempted to put down money on a vintage film camera.

First I was looking at a Rolliflex, then an M6J, then a vintage Canon, you name it…from a mint condition Leica to a pair of 1958 Zunow SLRs, he has it on his site.  And if you don’t see it on his site, he will find it for you.

But what got me interested in Japan was his map of Tokyo camera shops.  There are dozens, probably hundreds, of camera shops in Tokyo.  And the cameras under the glass are some of the most amazingly clean, mint condition vintage cameras I have ever seen.


In fact, in about 6 total hours of “hunting” myself, I saw almost everything on my “vintage camera bucket list.”  Full disclosure, I was “just looking.”  I have exhausted my camera budget tolerance with Amy over the years…particularly when I purchased my Leica gear.  But there is something about the history of these small, perfectly engineered, timeless devices that capture moments that is just mesmerizing.

I’m a member of the International Leica Society (LHSA) and as a member of that organization I am able to merge two of my passions: history and photography.  This fusion of topics is kicked into overdrive when you walk down a small side street and into Syuuko Camera for the first time, and see a Zunow sitting on the shelf for 13,000,000 Yen.  Just think about a machine that is sixty years old, still in working order.  Still in mint condition.  Imagine the photographs captured with that shutter.  The history is simply amazing.

The quality of the cameras in Japan is like nothing I’ve ever seen.  When they say mint, it means it looks like it was never taken out of the box.  


In photography it seems many people get tied up in discussions of gear.  Many people get caught up in the desire to upgrade to the latest technology.  But the technology to record images existed decades and decades ago.  At the core of what we do as photographers is control light and record that controlled light on a piece of film or a digital sensor.

Shutter speed.  Aperture.  ISO.  That’s it.

But the history behind cameras ties photographers together.  Imagine who has used that camera.  Imagine where your used camera has gone.  Imagine the hands that crafted that camera years ago in Japan, Germany, or even at Kodak right in the United States.

Photography is much more than “taking pictures.”  Photography is adding to the human story, using cameras to record history, and creating a history of its own in the collection and preservation of those historic cameras.

So why write a post that is so focused on something that interests a very narrow population of readers?  My own interest in history and photography, and in fact photographic history, drove me to go to Japan and see these small shops for myself.


What did I find?  I found a culture that is so rich in history itself that it would take years to fully understand and experience the religion, culture, food, and life in Japan.  My narrow interest opened a door to an entire fascination that I will carry with me for years.

One more side note…

In the United States the small individual or family owned camera shop is slowly fading into a history of its own.  These stores are fascinating.  The history on many of their shelves is amazing.  Now it is far more common to go to the website named after a river in South America or a large scale internet operation out of New York to purchase photographic equipment. But I encourage you to take a moment and find those small shops that still exist.

For me in Chicago it is Tamarkin Camera and The Rangefinder Gallery.  Dan does business all over the country and all over the world, but there is nothing like the experience of walking into his store and getting a small history lesson in some aspect of Leica Camera.  And you feel good about your purchase and know that you have a friend who will help you if you need it.

That camera culture still exists in Japan and we should fight to save it in the United States.

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