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About Town:Camera Shop closes its doors

by on September 27, 2012 1:18 PM

The Camera Shop, a pop-and-pop (not to be confused with a mom-and-pop) operation, closed two months ago after 41 years. It leaves its relatively new neighbor, Jim’s Army & Navy Surplus Store, as the senior business in the 1920s stucco building.

The small shop at 311 West Beaver Avenue — only a sliver by big-box standards — was the last camera shop in downtown State College. It was the survivor of four that opened their doors within a few years of one another: prominent Centre Film Lab, later The Film Center, at the corner of West Beaver Avenue and North Atherton Street; The Camera Shop; General Photographic, 325 East Beaver Avenue; and the below-stairs Penn Photo, South Fraser Street.

Within that 300 block, The Camera Shop follows the bygone Balfurd’s Cleaners plant — but unlike Balfurd’s historic plant, The Camera Shop hasn’t moved on.

“The whole industry is changing. I would say, in the next couple of years, the ‘point and shoot’ cameras are coming to an end,” says owner Bill Ammerman, one of The Camera Shop’s two Bills. The other, employee Bill Besecker, has been on the job since 1977. Ammerman, hired as a manager by the then Altoona-based chain around 1975, bought The Camera Shop in 1981.

Over the years, I asked one or the other Bill about features of new cameras and lenses in the display case and along the wall behind it, about the camera bags hanging from a display pole, and, from the film corner, about the correct one for a shoot with one of the manual cameras I bought there. They knew a lot.

During the past several years, The Camera Shop was the place to go for photo needs. One of the biggest group of regulars, Penn State students in the traditional darkroom course, bought paper and chemicals there.

“We sold a lot of wet-darkroom supplies when there was a Penn State class, but the university isn’t doing the wet-darkroom class anymore,” Ammerman says.

In the big picture, “There are a few diehards, and people are getting back into it,” says the former shop owner philosophically.

Besecker adds, “For the last six or seven months, I hadn’t stocked cameras.” The few left sold first at the going-out-of-business sale.

Left now are memories of “long-term customers and those who became friends,” he says. A few include former Penn State president Bryce Jordan (“He would come a lot when he had a break”), Liberal Arts dean Susan Welch, and designer Lanny Sommese. There also were Penn State department heads and professors, photographers, and others.

A couple of the photographers directed them out front for goodbye shots.

In retirement, Ammerman, age 64, keeps on doing what he did, but at his home lab in State College. He does digital printing, including such photo restorations as old family photos, and makes large photos for photographers Dick Brown and Steve Manuel. He also shoots, as before, the boys and girls who attend Camp Cadet, the Pennsylvania State Police’s summer camp, and some State College Area High School class reunions.

On the other hand, Besecker, 57, of Pleasant Gap, snaps now for himself and has taken jobs outside of photography. “Networking” with friends proved “serendipitous” for him. Proving himself a “fairly eclectic” person, he is now a part-time State Store employee and a part-time security guard with Payton Security in State College.

Ammerman, a 1966 graduate of State High, is a 1971 Penn State grad of the then College of Human Development. “I took a photographer class at Penn State and got hooked on it,” he says. “I bought my first camera in 1968” at age 20.

Among other pre-Camera Shop jobs was one that included hobby sales and fish care/sales at Ballenger’s Pet & Hobby Rama, where Kitchen Kaboodle is now. It was there that the bachelor first met the dog groomer/clerk, originally from Bellefonte; he and Vikki met again more recently and were married in 2006.

Speaking of hobbies, Ammerman is a founding member of the Art Alliance Potters Guild and continues working in that art form.

Besecker, who got his first camera at age 8, is a 1973 Bellefonte Area High School alumnus and graduated from PSU in 1977 in liberal arts and concentrated on photography. Following his outside-the-box karma, he took a break from The Camera Shop in 1985 to work on a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction in Penn State’s College of Education.

Both Bills have moved on to the future.

Says Besecker, “I started at the State Store the day that we locked the door.”


Nadine Kofman is a native Centre Countian and historian.
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