End of an era as FirstLook Photo closed its doors on the last store
Aug. 31, owner Jim Van Evera closed the last Firstlook Photo store ¿ a victim of the digital era in which cellphones became cameras and the Internet today's way of sharing what used to be snapshots developed and printed by businesses such as Van Evera's. (By Joe Crocetta / Staff Photographer / September 6, 2013)
Shortly after graduating in 1969, Van Evera opened the first of what would become a chain of four FirstLook Photo stores in Martinsburg, W.Va., and Hagerstown.
On Aug. 31, Van Evera closed the last of them — a victim of the digital era in which cellphones became cameras and the Internet today’s way of sharing what used to be snapshots developed and printed by businesses such as Van Evera’s.
“The photo industry was fundamentally based on film and, quite frankly, electronics has replaced film,” the 68-year-old Van Evera said last week. “When you had film, we have the magic to get those images out of the film, to release those images.
“But nowadays, you can see your picture instantly on the back of the camera, so there’s no reason for processing.”
In the past decade, as business began to decline, Van Evera continued on, beginning to sell digital cameras in addition to the film single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras standard for decades. To the end, he still was offering the in-house, one-hour photo printing that shot up in popularity nationwide in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as the custom printing that long had set his business apart.
Then, this past year, he talked to several people about taking over his one remaining store off Eastern Boulevard. But, he said, none of them was willing to take on the challenge of transforming the business to survive in the digital age.
Finally, Van Evera decided it was time to close. In so doing, he had to lay off the last six of the 24 employees he’d had during the business heyday in the 1990s.
“It is kind of tough,” he said last week of the closing. “But it’s not that bad because I’m pretty burned out. Not making money for the past few years makes it a little easier to say, ‘Let it go.’
“But I’m definitely going to miss the customers and the people I had working for me. I had a great bunch of people working for me through the years.”
In “letting go,” however, Van Evera still is hoping for a business future, as a landlord.
His 10,000-square-foot building, erected at 1115 Professional Court off Eastern Boulevard as FirstLook’s new home in 1996, was designed with energy-saving features that were cutting-edge at the time and still likely attractive to a business tenant, according to Syd Machat, Van Evera’s real-estate representative.
“He put up an ‘A’ building — top-notch. That building sings,” Machat said. “One acre, single-tenant building. We’re pitching it for business professionals or medical professional.”
The start of a career
The youngest son of a mining company foreman and a nurse, Van Evera was a 12-year-old growing up in Berkeley Station, W.Va., north of Martinsburg, when he received his first camera. It was a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye, a box camera with a flash on the side.
While a student at West Virginia University in Morgantown, W.Va., in 1966, he landed a job — about which he knew little and, at the time, scarcely cared — with the help of some students he had befriended.
“At the time, it was just a job so I could put myself through school,” Van Evera said.
The job marked the beginning of a change in his career focus.
He was hired as the sole employee in the photo development lab at the Morgantown office of the U.S. Forest Service. Photography was an interest for him by then, but “I didn’t really develop film until I got the job,” he said.