In the days before I became a professional photographer, while I was working towards a Masters in Fine Art Photography in Illinois, I helped support myself by helping out at a small, locally owned business, B&L Photo.  I learned many valuable lessons while working at B&L., I mastered of all kinds camera equipment, honed my printing and retouching skills, but I also learned valuable sales skills, and learned how a small business is run. Perhaps most importantly though, it was at B&L that I discovered there how to work well as part of a large team. The group I worked with there were like extended family. We were devoted to one another, but even more so, we were devoted to the father and son who not only employed us, but also nurtured our talent.

Here in Austin, Precision Camera reminds me of B&L. Precision was founded in 1976 by Jerry Sullivan, and moved recently from its long-time home on North Lamar Avenue to a bright, beautiful space on Anderson Lane. It’s a big store – the biggest photography store in Texas – but in making the transition, it hasn’t sacrificed its sense of welcome and familiarity.

Jerry Sullivan began his career in the photo business as a camera repair technician. At one store he worked in, he met world-renowned photographer Garry Winogrand. Winogrand came into the shop one day, furious about a coveted Leica that hadn’t been properly repaired. Jerry explained to Winogrand that he hadn’t worked on the camera, but that he felt confident he could fix it – which he promptly did.  From that day forth, Jerry and Winogrand became great friends. Winogrand gave Jerry all his cameras to repair, and later, sent his many students to Jerry for their camera repairs too.

Winogrand came in furious about a coveted Leica that hadn’t been properly repaired. Jerry explained to Winogrand that he hadn’t worked on the camera, but that he felt confident he could fix it – which he promptly did

Jerry’s wife, Rosemary, has been an integral part of the success of Precision Camera.  Jerry and Rosemary are both originally from Dallas, where they attended the same high school. Later, Jerry attended Stephen F Austin, in Nacogdoches, Texas before transferring to UT – at which point he and Rosemary started dating. They’ve been together ever since, and were married in 1973. Rosemary began doing the store’s bookkeeping part-time in 1982, and now works full time, supervising the Accounting and HR Departments, besides helping out wherever else she is needed.

I asked Jerry why, having been based on North Lamar Avenue for 21 years, he’d decided to move his store to the Anderson Lane location?  He explained that the entire complex on Lamar is scheduled to be flattened in order to make room for a high-rise medical complex. And yet, as he ruefully acknowledged, “From adversary comes opportunity.”  Besides a sales floor that is 2 ½ times the size of the previous one, the new location features more generous parking and improved access. The store design is by John Beckham, of Stone Soup 6, who was previously the architect for Whole Foods Stores.

What continues to keep Jerry most excited about an industry he’s been a part of for so long is the fact that the business itself is constantly changing and evolving, notably of course, through the advent of digital technology. Yet many of the challenges also remain the same – ‘The people part of the business is both it’s joy and it’s curse,’ he said. Finding local employees who are both reliable and knowledgeable remains a challenge.

The people part of the business is both it’s joy and it’s curse

Despite the demands of running his business, and outside commitments such as his place as a Board Member at the Austin Center for Photography, Jerry still finds time to work on personal projects – notably a book he’s been working on.

The book idea came about through Jerry’s daughter, who is passionately involved with The African Network for Animal Welfare. Jerry visited her in Nairobi, Kenya, and was immediately taken with the country. He began to photograph the environment, and has put together a beautiful body of work. He even brought back “snare art” to sell in the store, the proceeds of which are returned to Kenya and the tribal artists that ANAW helps.

Of course, since Jerry first opened Precision Camera, much has changed – not only in terms of photography technology, but also in the city of Austin itself. He readily acknowledges that the city’s growth has been good for business, as well as the trend in Austin’s demographic towards a highly educated and increasingly affluent citizenship.

Not that growth has come without sacrifice. Operating a business as large and successful as Precision is a 24/7 endeavor, and Jerry has his share of laments about not having had as much time to spend with his family as he might have – though he feels he’s found a better balance in terms of that more recently.

Working hard is the key. You cannot stop learning, and if you want to run your own business, go get a business degree! Being a photographer is one thing, but running a photography business is a whole other can of worms

Asked to give young retail entrepreneurs some must-have advice he said, ‘Working hard is the key. You cannot stop learning, and if you want to run your own business, go get a business degree! Being a photographer is one thing, but running a photography business is a whole other can of worms.’

Happily, the business aspect of photography has not completely forced Jerry to lose touch with his camera tech beginnings. He expresses a fanaticism for panoramic cameras, and owns both a Widelux and an Xpan. He also recently took on a Nikon D800, which he considers the finest camera out right now (though his absolute favorite camera of all time is the Leica M6). He also has an Ikeda 5×7 field camera, and his declared love for film as well as digital cameras was music to this gal’s ears.

As a locally owned business, Precision Camera is a great asset. Personally, I would rather shop at a store like Precision – one that has strong community values, where the staff is like family and treats regulars coming in as one of their own.  It stands for community of the kind you simply cannot be a part of when ordering on-line.

Some of the old Precision locations:

 

 

 

2 Responses to “Precision Camera and Jerry Sullivan, Building Texas’ Biggest Camera Store”

  1. Woah! You have a big company that sells different cameras. I like to visit your store very soon.

    Reply

  2. awesome clicks and really useful info is share! Thanks so much for sharing all this stuff. You guys are doing a superb job.

    Keep it up. God bless u!!!

    Reply

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