Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Hudson Camera Memories

The picture of Boyd Gaston is tacked on the side of a shelf, near the doorway to the back room of Hudson Camera. He looks a nice guy, Jersey City guy. He was an amateur photographer, camera buff although Pete, sounding like the life long Jersey City shop owner he has been his entire life (he was born in 1950), called him a PATH guy. He took the PATH every day to work, which was at the World Trade Center. He would buy his photo supplies there but nearly every day, he would come in, after the PATH took him back to Grove Street, on his way home and smoke a cigarette and talk with Pete.

“Talk with you about camera stuff?” I asked.

“No, life,” Pete replied. “We mostly talked about life and Jersey city.”

After 9-11, Boyd stopped showing up. He was among the missing. Several months later, his family, having gone through his belongings brought in this picture for the store and Pete tacked it up, not some kind of memorial, just a remembrance – aren’t all photographs a record of a moment, a document that a memory exists? – of this customer, this PATH guy. He just likes thinking about him sometimes.

Pete is closing Hudson Camera. His father opened the store in the 1940s; Pete, who was born in 1950, has run the store since the mid-1960s. I wasn’t as surprised when I read the article in the Jersey City Reporter that the store was finally shutting down for good as I was that he stayed open this long.

They way I heard the Boyd story also has to do with 9-11 and Hudson Camera. On 9-11, I took pictures with an old Minolta – 2001, digital photography was still in its infancy and film was still a good business – I had purchased the Minolta in the 90s from Hudson Camera because I needed a good camera for some gigs as a freelance writer. On 9-11, I got a new battery and some rolls of color film and took pictures, like anybody with a camera in town did. Exchange Place was the major staging point for the recovery and rescue effort. The day of the attacks, phones, ATMs, credit card machines, were not functioning. Pete took people on their word so they could document that dreadful day.

“We wrote out dozens of credit card slips without scanning any of the cards. When the phone lines came back on, there was one card that was declined and I called the person, who came in the next day. There was a journalist from Taiwan who just happened to be here on 9-11, he bought $600 worth of film. I remember he came back a year later to thank me for basically trusting him.”

Here is a link to some pictures I took on 9-11. Here is a link to some 9-11 black and white pictures; I kept this roll of film that camera for an entire decade; on the anniversary of 9-11 I got it developed. This has made me the last person to get Black & White film developed at Hudson Camera. I am proud of this distinction.

Pete has probably seen more pictures of the World Trade Center than anyone else. It was still before every camera had a phone. Everybody was taking pictures and getting them developed there, “not only that,” he told me, “everybody went through their old pictures looking for the World Trade Center.”

For months, the majority of the pictures he processed were of either of the Twin Towers, or the destruction of those buildings and its local aftermath. Thousands of pictures of the major historical turning point for America; inundated just doesn’t seem to do that experience justice.

Stephan Schulz, a buddy of mine, amateur photographer and Hudson Camera customer, ran down to exchange place that morning and got one of the most dramatic pictures of the incident taken. Remember that fire departments from throughout New Jersey came to Exchange Place, where they were ferried across the Hudson to help dig through the pile. Hudson Camera reproduced thousands of prints of these pictures, gave them to everybody who asked, word got around among the workers.

On the wall behind the counter are the long empty racks for film rolls. A young woman came in with a roll of film hoping to get it developed. Pete had to inform her he was no longer taking film. She was sad to hear the news. Pete reassured her than in he was planning to open a custom framing shop nearby, and would still process film. But that wouldn’t be for about a month. She wondered where else she could get film developed.

He had switched to selling mainly frames and the shelves are getting near bare. Hudson Camera is open until the ides of March, selling off the rest of the inventory at steep discounts.

I went into the backroom, dozens of cameras and various photography apocrypha, piled on shelves and counter tops, in boxes. The backroom was a workshop, for camera repairs and custom framing. Camera repair and reconditioning had been part of the business and in fact, my famed Minolta was a reconditioned model.

Why so many old cameras?

“I keep them for screws,” he explained.

“Film cameras may not have appreciated in value, but they did not depreciate. You bought a film camera and had it for a few years, you cold still get a pretty good price for it. There was a trade in value and they were repairable. With digital cameras, you just get a new one, the technology keeps getting better.

There was no organizational methodology to the chaos – it looks as if a camera museum was at the epicenter of an earthquake – but the reality was this was the storage and backroom area of a niche store in business for decades. The backroom – I had not seen it before I took these pictures – is the accumulation of all the flotsam and miscellany of film photography, a way of picture making that is now almost entirely gone

He points to a wall of camera charges, the edges of the packages yellow with age. “With film cameras, you keep supplies to service cameras you’ve sold over the years ,with digital cameras they change so fast everything is obsolete in six months

I tried to get some memories of the city, the rise and fall, but he felt the urban blight mythos that spurs gentrification seemed false to someone who has spent his life in Downtown Jersey City. “There was always a core of people in Jersey City that didn’t leaveLike book stores and record stores and other retail establishments unable to resist the changes in technology, Camera shops are fast filling up the dustbin of history. Nonetheless, any Jersey City retailer has it tough. New York is so quickly accessible and such a large proportion of our population works there, every store here competes with some of the best stores in the world. The 3 percent sales tax is an insufficient incentive to spend more of your disposable income here.

Camera stores have closed in N.Y. as well, the few holding on are large independents who mainly target professional photographers and their more exclusive and expensive equipment. Hudson Camera’s business was essentially in cambers, camera supplies, film and picture frames. The digital revolution eliminated film processing, changed the supplies that needed to be inventoried and altered consumer picture tastes so that prints (and framing those printed photographs) is now a retro novelty. There are probably more pictures being taken every day than in the heyday of the film world, but they’re being shared and distributed electronically.

These trends did not happen over night, but their pace accelerated post 9-11, and when combined with the downturn in the economy that began at the beginning of Bush’s second term, business finally became too rocky to weather. “I’ve seen bad economies, but this is the worse because the things have been bad for a long time, things have been bad before, we’ve had ups and downs, but this is the longest that things have been bad

He owns the building and is leasing out the Hudson Camera space to a bar. The nay-sayers may be right, we are getting just like Hoboken: more bars and no camera stores

Some solace can be taken however. “I will be making more money renting the space out for a bar than by running a store in the space.”

About 18 months ago, it looked like Hudson Camera had closed, I wrote this blog.

But it was a mere blip, and soon reopened. I wrote this blog.

This time, history will not repeat.

According to Stephan Schulz, an amateur photographer, friend of Pete’s and regular Hudson Camera customer, he went to Hudson Camera minutes after the first plane crashed into the WTC, Pete “virtually threw the film at me.” Thousands of copies of this photograph by Stephan, Pete gave away for free, mainly to all the rescue workers who came to town to help with the recovery effort across the river.


  1. Pete really is the best. Hudson Camera was such a gem for Newark Ave. I will make sure to pay him a visit before the store closes for good.

  2. To some extent, this seemed to be of his own doing. I went in there about a year ago looking to buy my first DSLR. The woman behind the counter informed me that they didn't have ANY DSLR's. What kind of camera store doesn't carry a DSLR these days?

    I would have loved to give him my business even if it meant paying a little more. His store seems to have closed out of lack of interest more than anything.

  3. It was a great run Pete....I loved working there & have really great memories of the 14 plus years that i was there. We were really lucky to have such great customers and friends that become part of our "regulars" I miss them all. But most of all i will miss you and Barbara & Flipper.....even Flipper!!!