From his dark, cramped second floor office, David Sarber looks out a narrow window to the sales floor below, surveying the final days of the business his family has run for some 50 years. A large sign outside reads: “LIQUIDATION SALE Everything Must Go.” After opening in 1961 and coming to Montclair Village in Oakland in 1964, Sarber’s Cameras will close up shop at the end of January.
On a Thursday afternoon, Sarber’s sees a small rush of about eight customers picking up photo prints they ordered online, browsing sale items—frames, camera bags, lenses—and asking sales staff about the looming store closure. “Everything’s 35 percent off. We hope nothing’s left,” salesman K.C. Morrison says to one customer.
Upstairs, Sarber answers the ringing phone. “Yeah, I think I still have some Hi8 videotape left, I’ll bring some home tonight,” he says, explaining that his 97-year-old neighbor is the only person alive still using Hi8 videotape.
David Sarber is the son of Peter and Nancy Sarber, who started the business when they purchased Oakland Camera Exchange in 1961. He said the decision to close was many years in the making due to a rapidly shifting market and technological changes that have dramatically changed the world of photography. “If you looked at it as a business, as a smart retailer, as someone that wanted to make some money, the store probably should’ve closed in 2006,” he said.
But to the Sarbers and members of their community, Sarber’s Cameras has been a lot more than running a business and making money. “Even though this is my family’s camera store, this is the community’s camera store,” Sarber said. “The thank you’s and acknowledgements that we’ve gotten here over the last couple weeks since we announced we’re going out of business—you really notice how impacted a lot of these folks are.”
Sarber, who has a graying goatee, is wearing jeans and a ratty green sweatshirt, and takes regular smoke breaks across the street in front the shop, is especially reflective about his business closing. He feels that his store is more than another retail shop—more than another donut shop or shoe store “that comes and goes.” “For so many people, there is a consistency—all of the photos that are in their albums, all the photos in the frames, all the cameras they’ve had for the last 20, 30, 40 years, they were all purchased here,” Sarver said. “Memories are very powerful things, they are very emotional. People are very attached to that, and Sarber’s is the one that provided all of that for them.”
But in an ever-changing technological world that now includes the Internet and cell phones, “the experience of sitting down and looking at a photo album, flipping through the pages, looking at them, reinstalling that memory time and again—those experiences have all been disappeared for people,” Sarber said.
Now in his fifties, Sarber has worked in the family business for over thirty years. But that wasn’t the plan. After finishing active duty for the Navy in 1983, Sarber didn’t know what to do. So he asked then-manager Charlie Palmer for a job working in the store. “My parents did not hire me. It was a surprise to both of them that I was working in the store,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘This will be good.’ I thought I’d go work for the family business and not work for a living.”
Originally hired as an extra hand on the sales floor, Sarber eventually took on more and more responsibility, then took over the business in 1998 after the death of his father. “It was a very slow transition, and it wasn’t intentional,” Sarber said. “I’ve worked harder than I ever thought I’d have to work.”
The store’s business model has changed drastically throughout the years. In the late-80s, photo processing became the business’ cash cow, picking up the slack for the low-margin parts of the business, like camera and accessory sales, and propelling the independent photo retail business for years. Then the industry shifted dramatically in the late-1990s with the advent of digital photography. Sarber says his business was a little slow to shift its focus, but by the mid-2000’s they had altered their business model to keep up with the changing market. “We reinvested money, downsized sales force, reconsidered product lines,” Sarber said, explaining that their new focus was on selling digital cameras and accessories. “You just weather the storm as best you can. And we were doing great.”
Then, a “1-2-3 punch” hit that Sarber’s ultimately was not able to overcome. First, the recession began in 2008. Sales started dropping, and with fixed costs and inconsistent income, Sarber says the recession “took a lot of moment out of the business.” Then, in March, 2011, an earthquake and resulting tsunami hit Japan, greatly affecting the supply of many brands of cameras and film accessories. Sarber says people were not able to buy Japanese brands like Canon, Fuji and Nikon, which really hurt his business.
Finally, a flood in a Nikon factory in Thailand that September wiped out a large portion of the supply of consumer grade products that Nikon made, according to Sarber. “Any of those events would have been OK to overcome,” Sarber said. “But all together, there were too many external forces all converging at one time.”
Through the years, Sarber’s Cameras has operated additional stores throughout the Bay Area. One store in Berkeley, on Solano Avenue, closed in 2011 after 19 years after a rent price dispute with his landlord. After moving the store three blocks down, Sarber ultimately had to close up shop six months later. “I had to downsize,” he said. “The expense of being in operation was draining every last cent out of the company.”
Despite the tough years and changing industry, Sarber believes the independent retail camera business can still be sustainable if the people running it have the energy and desire to keep it running. “There are certain things to be done around here to make this a very successful business,” he said. “But, you have to remember, I’ve been here for nearly thirty years. It still takes sustainable people, and I’m kind of tired.”
“When you know you don’t want to, can’t, or are unwilling to do” the things the business needs, “then it is time to really revaluate things,” Sarber said. He calls himself a “terrific camera store guy,” but not a very good retailer—a distinction he learned when the recession hit five years ago.
Sarber says he and his family are not retiring—“Not by any stretch of the imagination. We owe too much money to sit back and not do anything.”
He compares the impending closure of Sarber’s to a home-schooled student nearing his high school graduation, lacking social skills or the perspective needed to relate to other people. “I’ve had my concentration here for thirty years. I don’t know what it’s like not to worry about the business, not to worry about overtime, or someone calling in sick on your day off,” he said. “I just figured this is what I do. I’m David Sarber of Sarber’s Camera. It’s been around for 50 years, and I run it, and who’s to say it won’t be around for another 50 years? This is what I do.”
But now, he said, “I’m not going to do that anymore. It’s really shifted my approach to a lot of things.”
Sarber is excited about potential future endeavors. One possibility revolves around his “substantial collection of vintage photo equipment,” that he’d like to be involved in selling and taking around to trade shows. “There is fun stuff left to do that I actually know how to do and enjoy doing,” he said.
Sarber’s mother Nancy is still alive, but David says she has no regrets or sadness about closing the store that she opened 50 years ago. “She thinks it’s long overdue,” Sarber said. “My mom has watched me pull more rabbits out of that hat to keep things going than she ever would’ve wanted to see me do. She’s seen the toll it has taken on me personally and she is very happy to see me stop.”
Visit Sarber’s Cameras online or at 1958 Mountain Blvd, in Oakland. All items remaining are on sale until the store closes at the end of January.