January 4th 2012 was not a good day for the DC photography community. As is common knowledge, local photography chain Penn Camera filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection yesterday, closing the majority of their stores. Their long term future is uncertain. In addition, Eastman Kodak, the film company who’s name is synonymous with photography, is reported to be close to filing for bankruptcy as well. Either piece of news is bad; taken together, it’s hard for anyone who is a photographer not to go hug their SLR, film or digital.
Before we remind you of the fine print of clearance sales, I wanted to talk about why this is a big deal. Anyone in DC who was remotely serious about photography, went to a Penn store at some point; either to develop film, rent a piece of equipment, or to make a purchase. And above all, to talk with their great employees, who are photographers themselves. Their stores are a place for photographers to meet and talk, something hard to do with such an isolating form of art. Kodak’s fate, while less clear, is still an unhappy step in the demise of film photography. While still alive and practiced by many great photographers, film photography is slowly going the way of daguerreotypes and collodion wet plates. Everyone is reading between the lines and is expecting to hear that Kodak film and developing supplies will no longer be produced.
Now, about the clearance sales: it’s important to keep expectations in check. If you expect to get a top of the line DSLR at 50% off, think again. Any high-end or new camera gear will likely be going back to the manufacturers; it’s what happened when Ritz Camera liquidated in 2009. That stuff still has value and can be resold. However, I would not be surprised to see prices for the used gear Penn sells to be marked down; and the film developing equipment and supplies as well. The peripheries, such as camera bags, filters, tripods, etc, will probably be a case-by-case basis; these are the products that have the highest margin for profit, which means there is more room to cut the price. However, the more the product is in demand, the more likely it will not be marked down (ie: simple economics). And what happens to their rental stock is an open question; will it be sold or is this something Penn wants to hold on to? All of this is personal speculation; I have no insider information. I have a message in with Penn right now for comment, and I hope to get more information to share.
In closing, as a life-long Washingtonian, this hurts. My father purchased a lot of camera gear from Penn before I was born and in my early childhood. Most of this gear I’m now using. I have a teleconvertor which still has the Canon limited warranty card, signed and dated (August 1985), with Penn Camera’s E Street address. Then there are my own memories of shopping at E Street, and talking with the salespeople there. Great conversations about equipment, photography styles, and places to shoot in the city. I hope Penn doesn’t completely fold in this, and will emerge from Chapter 11 as a stronger company. Because I’m not ready to lose this piece of the District.