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As the World Changes

It wasn’t so long ago when people were loading sideways “I”-shaped film cartridges and sticking flash cubes on the tops of plastic cameras, clicking and cranking happily as children blew out candles on their birthday cakes.

It’s a whole different ballgame now, notes Tom Burch, owner of Henley’s, a Bakersfield institution since 1926. The introduction of digital imaging changed the photography game forever, ushering in a whole new generation of digital “converts” who’ve never even loaded a 35 mm camera or had to figure out the F-stop or shutter speed manually.

“When digital photography first blew onto the scene, I saw scads of ‘traditional’ photography shops left in the dust because they denied digital, dismissing all things digital as inferior, not the same as ‘real’ photography,” Burch recalls, looking back on the impact the digital age had on the world of photography.

“We [at Henley’s] decided to embrace all things digital, jumping into the new technology in a big way by starting to sell digital cameras, printers, cards, and by investing in a digital printing machine in our third processing lab,” he says.

You have to change when the world changes, Burch continues, adding that sometimes change even makes things better.

“When we went to digital processing, our processing time went down to between 28 and 30 minutes and we were able to bring something unique to the area because Henley’s lab prints everything digitally on archival photo paper—most labs don’t print on archival-quality photo paper. And as far as convenience for your average photographer goes, the ‘hobby’ became much more cost-effective because you can take hundreds of pictures, delete the ones you don’t like and eliminate the cost of film. The ease of digital photography means that practically anybody can be a ‘professional.’ ”

But change is nothing new to a business that’s been around as long as Henley’s. In fact, change has been a part of the Henley’s story for almost a century.

First opened by the Doorman brothers on Chester Avenue in 1926, Joe and Barbara Henley bought the promising photography shop in 1948. The Henleys decided to make the move from Chester to the present location on H Street in 1977 when downtown was undergoing a redevelopment phase, and Joe re-opened his doors in what had formerly housed not only the Kern County Land Company Building, but a tire shop owned by Buddy Allen.

It was a great move for Henley’s; there was ample parkingand the building was good, but there was one big change Joe really wanted to make.

“One thing Joe had always dreamed of doing was putting in a drive-thru window so his older customers who couldn’t walk very well, or the young mothers who had a car full of kids and dogs, could just drive up and drop off or pick up. So when a friend of Joe’s, who was a general contractor, called him up to tell him that he knew someone who knew someone (isn’t it funny how business gets done?) who had removed a drive up window from a bank and might be willing to sell it, Joe got on the phone right away. They settled on the price of $1,500 and Joe closed the deal fast when his contractor told him he’d better grab it at that price because these windows typically cost around $14,000.”

And after a day and a half of jack-hammering through the unreinforced masonry concrete wall, Joe’s dream of having a drive-up window came true.

“It was a hit almost immediately. We would average between 40 and 50 uses a day, with people dropping off and picking up anything that would fit in the drawer,” Burch recalls.

Burch, who had been learning the ins and outs of running the business since he joined Joe’s staff in 1967 after returning from Vietnam where he served as a combat photographer in the 3rd Marine Division, took over Henley’s operations in 1979, and has seen the ups and downs of the photography business first hand.

“I think the first really big risk we took was when we moved to this location in 1977. There was a projection that we’d lose between 10 and 15 percent of our business just because people wouldn’t be able to find us. Never happened. Then we took a huge (not to mention very expensive) risk when we added the color processing lab around 1980. Then we took the chance on one-hour processing. Then we added the digital processing. Those risks all paid off. But this economy is creating new challenges every day. We know that we’re a service that’s very much dependent on people’s disposable income, and people these days just don’t have a whole lot of that, so we’re looking at ways we can help our customers.”

The past couple of years has been tough on the Henley’s family and Burch has had to make some difficult decisions as they’ve weathered the economic storms.

“At one time we had 14 employees. Now we’re down to 5,” he reflects with a note of regret. “And we used to be open on Saturdays, but now we’re open just Monday through Friday. It’s been really tough, but we try to just roll with the punches and do what we can to pay the bills.”

Burch feels his best bet in keeping the doors to Henley’s open during this economy is by welcoming the digital age and using the new technology to help build his business. Classes in digital photography, sales of digital cameras and equipment, digital processing—Henley’s ever-expanding foray into the digital age shows the flexibility and open-mindedness it takes to make it in a technologically-driven business.

“Classes have become a Henley’s main-stay because not only are we helping our customers learn the ins and outs of photography and learn how to use their cameras, but because they’re a great way to get people in the store.”

Sales have also been a part of Henley’s step-up into the digital age, but as Burch says, “We’re not trying to set the world on fire by selling digital cameras. I don’t try to match competitor’s prices because what makes us unique is the fact that when you buy a piece of equipment from Henley’s, you’re buying our expertise. I want to provide the best service for my customers.

“Joe Henley had a saying, ‘A typical salesman tries to sell the sizzle, not the steak.’ We aren’t your typical salesmen at Henley’s. If someone comes in to buy a digital camera, I’ll ask questions like, ‘what are you going to use it for?’ ‘How often do you take pictures?’ ‘What size prints do you typically purchase?’ I think it’s a disservice to sell them something they don’t need. If the bells and whistles of a 24.6 mega pixel camera for around $2,700 are going to be useful for their needs, then that’s what we’ll look at. But if they just use a camera to take pictures of special events and typically order 4 x 6 prints, I’ll try to steer them toward an inexpensive camera that runs on AA batteries.”

So Henley’s has made the most out of the migration to digital photography, adopting the pixels, cards, and automatic ISOs, and becoming a better business for it.

Article appeared in our 27-1 Issue - April 2010