Central Camera is stocked with film, lenses, and 117 years of history

By Kat Lonsdorf and Raquel Zaldivar

Don Flesch greets every customer that comes into Central Camera Company with a cookie. He’ll list them all for you if you need help choosing one: oatmeal raisin, dried cherry, chocolate chip, vanilla.

He’ll help you choose camera equipment the same way, making sure you know all your options before you buy.

Flesch is the third generation in his family to run the small store in downtown Chicago. His grandfather, Albert, started the store in 1899 when he was only 21 years old and cameras were relatively new.

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In the 117 years since it opened, Central Camera has seen a lot of changes. It has changed location twice (but only within a few blocks or so), and cameras have gone from an expensive luxury to an everyday item that most people have on them at all times.

“But the store hasn’t changed,” Flesch said, sitting up in his office surrounded by memorabilia. “Things are the same.”

According to Flesch, Central Camera has thrived because it’s a one-stop shop for all things photography, a marvelous reminder of  a different era and a different way of doing business.

In the 1980s, there were about 10,000 specialty camera stores in the United States. Flesch says that number is now down below 300. And while Central Camera has a website and sells nationwide, Flesch still thinks there’s something special about coming to a physical store to make a purchase.

“Someone who comes here gets to touch all the cameras and learn them and touch the lenses and flashes, so they start to see the difference,” he said.

Customers seem to agree. Many have been coming to Central Camera for decades, following in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents as well.

Photo at top: Central Camera Company at 230 S. Wabash Ave. has become a local landmark in downtown Chicago. The store has been in the same family for three generations. (Raquel Zaldivar/MEDILL)