By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Staff Writer
The plain, framed sign in the window stopped passersby in their tracks, one after another on Tuesday. The reactions ranged from disbelief to silent and solemn head shaking, but there it was in black and white: Kimura Photomart is closing.
“This is really bad news,” said one customer who declined to be identified. “If they’re not here, I don’t know where I will go if I have a camera question.”
Her sentiment is likely to be echoed throughout Little Tokyo and Downtown. In a neighborhood that was at one time a center for expertise on photography and Japanese cameras, Kimura is the last remaining full-service photo store, after Hikari Photo and Little Tokyo Camera Service ceased operations within the last six years.
Sadao Kimura, whose family first opened the doors to their camera shop on San Pedro Street in 1955, said the marketplace for independent photo retailers has deteriorated rapidly, with his business steadily declining since the late 1980s.
The shop will join the disappearing legacy of family-owned camera stores that offer personalized, courteous service as part of their business model. With large chain stores such as Fry’s, Wal-Mart and Target able to flex their huge buying power and undercut independent retailers in store and online, the private shops have been vanishing nationwide. The woman lamenting Kimura’s pending closure said the national retailers can never offer the service and expertise she’s received at the Little Tokyo store.
Sadao Kimura said that when his father, Hisao, first established the shop, he considered the help they provided to customers as the factor that set them apart from other stores. They rented a space in the building next to Union Church and put their hearts and sweat into making it a success.
Over the next decade and a half, the business flourished, to the point where the family was able to construct their own building on Second Street, the shop’s current location. Despite not having to absorb increases in rent, Sadao Kimura said keeping the camera store profitable has simply become too much of a struggle and so they made the decision to quietly shut their doors. Kimura added that he still has to care for the three-story building, which also houses Little Tokyo Dental Group and Saint Mary’s Healthcare Services.
Mario G. Reyes, Rafu Shimpo’s photo editor since 1989, said that Kimura’s disappearance leaves a void in the Downtown area for all photographers, from novice to professional.
“Older folks would come in to ask, ‘How do work this?’ and Sadao and [younger brother]Tosh would always take the time to explain, in English and Japanese,” Reyes recalled. “Whenever we needed something for the paper, that’s where we would go. Now, I don’t know where anyone who needs help can go, maybe Pasadena or West L.A., that’s all we’ve got left.”