The history of Campkins Cameras, and being an independent retailer during the pandemic.
with Owen Howell, Owner of Campkins Cameras [8 minute read]
Campkins Cameras has been a feature on the Cambridge high street for decades and the company’s roots go as far back as the early 1800s! Campkins is a family-run business that’s still going strong despite the modern-day challenges facing high street retailers, from e-commerce to the pandemic.
Chris chatted with Owen Howell, who has followed in the footsteps of his dad and granddad as the owner of Campkins Cameras. We popped over to the Copper Kettle, just a few doors down from the shop on King’s Parade, to talk about the company’s history and what it means to be an independent retailer today.
Tell us about the history of Campkins Cameras.
So Campkins has pretty much been around forever. I’m not sure there are many people in Cambridge who have not heard of Campkins in and around town. I call it a privilege that I followed in the footsteps of my dad and my granddad.
There was a Campkin family before us and that’s where the name originally came from. We’ve had shops all over the place as well, but we’re very fixed on Cambridge now and I’m happy to call it my home and the home of Campkins.
What was Campkins before your family became owners?
So we know there was a Campkins Chemist as early as 1800.
Obviously, the family name was Campkin at the time. I can’t tell you too much more about that era, but I have actually got old books that have a list of poisons that people were having at the time, as they called them rather than medication.
How did Campkins go from chemist to photography?
My granddad must’ve joined Campkins in the ’30s or ’40s. He obviously had a big interest in photography. They used to do all the developing of film. In the attic of the Rose Crescent shop, he set up a dark room while working for the Campkins family.
When he took over the business, he changed it more in the direction of cameras rather than the chemist that it was. Although we still had our Rose Crescent called the Scientific Campkins for a long time into the ’90s.
Grandad kept buying other new shops and new businesses and would normally tell my dad to go out there and run the business. And my dad was lucky to meet my mum when he went over to Ireland to open up a camera shop over there.
We had shops in and around East Anglia, Lincoln. In London, we were in Bond Street. So we were expanding quickly, back in the ’70s. It sounds like a different world in a way, but it was quite an amazing feat to go from having a little shop in Cambridge to going all around England and Ireland.
Rose Crescent was the original shop even way back in the 1800s. It’s a shame we’re not there, but I’m quite happy with our location on King’s Parade. It’s a pretty good view we have.
When did you first pick up a camera?
I suppose like everyone, especially these days, I had a camera shoved in my face from a very early age. But I probably saw more cameras than most babies. I suspect at the grabbing stage of childhood, I was probably grabbing at cameras because there were probably plenty of them around. My dad was very good at bringing his work home. I have recollections of first taking a picture maybe at four or five years old.
I suppose it’s a bit like children today and seeing their parents with mobile phones. It wasn’t a mobile phone for me. It was a camera.
Tell us about your famous yellow van.
So the yellow van was meant to symbolize a Kodak Film. It was painted in the colours of Kodak, to make it quite recognizable what we were doing inside the van. I believe my grandad first did this back in the ’50s. I believe I was only about two weeks old when I first went to my first air show. My mom wasn’t about to stop working just because she had a little child.
That’s probably where I first picked up the bug. I got dragged around to a lot of these shows and they were fun, but you got bored at times. So to get rid of the boredom, I started selling stuff, easy stuff at the time, mainly films. My main expertise at that time probably came in binoculars. I really enjoyed selling binoculars at the time. It came naturally to me. The film cameras took a bit longer at the time, but again, it wasn’t long before I picked that up.
So, when did you officially start working at Campkins?
My dad started shifting me out to our Dublin shop when I was about 16 to help with the stock intake over Christmas. When I was 17 or 18 over the summer holidays I did three months in Ireland where I learned how to use the printing machines and worked in a shop regularly. Well, full time, it was kind of. I think he got some good cheap wages out of me.
I suppose when I came back from that sort of training period in Ireland, he offered me a full-time job here in Cambridge, and as they say, the rest is history.
When did you become the owner?
So I was a partner with my dad in the King’s Parade branch from the late noughties, around 2008. Then my auntie decided she didn’t want to be involved in the business anymore. So my dad and I were partners. Then I took full control when my dad, unfortunately, passed away. So from a partnership into a sole trader, and we’ve kept on running it like that since.
Times have changed a lot over the history of Campkins, particularly now. So how has a small independent business managed to adapt and stay relevant to customers over the years?
I think the key to staying relevant is to look after your customers first and foremost. If you can’t get that right, then you’re almost saying, see you later. So I think that’s key to being relevant. When I say that, most towns used to have a camera shop and very few do now, so you have to be clever in a way that you market yourself. Campkins I believe now has kept a lot of its old traditions, but also adapting some new ones. But weirdly some of the old traditions have sort of come back.
For example, film photography is becoming huge at the moment: film developing, film sales, film cameras. I only wish that one camera manufacturer would bring out a new camera instead of us relying on secondhand equipment. Although I do love selling secondhand equipment because the feel and the retro look of the equipment is amazing. If one of them was brave enough to go back and see what was happening, I think that company would do some fantastic business.
Local retailers were facing challenges even before the pandemic, so what does it take to survive?
Again, I’ll go back to looking after your clients, your customers, your base. So you’ve got to get that right first and show that you’re willing almost to move mountains for them. That’s what I aim to do each day I go into the shop.
So, it hasn’t been easy. Particularly the supply of equipment has been pretty difficult. I know what kept me sane during lockdowns was I was able to pop down to the shop for a couple of hours each day. My dog, Ledley, particularly enjoyed those times because he got more attention when he came to work.
You’ve just got to put in the hours and the time during those situations. It was lonely at times because I had a working staff, a shop floor staff of four members of my team before. Some of them are now back but we’re still down to two members of shop floor staff at the moment.
The shop has kept me sane in a way, and interaction with people over the phone and by email. In a way I always prefer to see people face to face, but the people that did contact me during that time just kept me going as well.
So obviously I’m very happy that they remembered me and we had to get out there as well. So you might have seen our social media side of things grow dramatically during that period of time. I probably boosted my online presence by probably getting a year ahead of myself maybe. Maybe even a lot more than a year. You adapt, you change, and that’s why Campkins have been around for many a year already, and we plan to be for many more. I have a good team behind me as well who are pushing me on regularly.
What was that like then moving from having that team to just yourself?
If it wasn’t for the customers calling in, I think I’d have gone insane. I love seeing people, I love interacting with people. When I talk about teams a lot, I’ve created teams in the shop now because I think it’s a better way of working. But I was always part of a team in sports as well. I never really was an individual sportsman. I always used to work better in groups. So, the team and group and people aspect are what makes me want to go to work in the morning.
It’s great to see that we’ve got more people back in the shop. So what excites you for the future of Campkins?
I’m really pleased that I’m getting brand backing from a number of suppliers now. So they’re obviously seeing what we’re doing is working and they’re really helping us out. That makes me excited for the future because we’re expanding our base. In this day and age, yes, obviously I’ve gone on about it, but I love seeing people face to face, but we’re helping people all around the country, and all around the world in a way. So with the social media presence, we’ve been picked up in America, Australia, in Asia. So it’s fascinating to see how one small shop in Cambridge can get their knowledge out there to the whole world.
So I’d like to see it continue to grow. Unfortunately, I don’t see that growth in opening other shops around the area, but I see it as keeping our Cambridge base and seeing how we can grow in Cambridge. There are other ways of showing growth that doesn’t include opening new shops.
So, I’m in it for the long haul. I have a family name to keep up, as well as at a Cambridge institution. What’s also delighted me, and I mentioned it earlier, was things that I thought might’ve been dead by now, like film photography, it excites me each day I’m not just shoving boxes out at a cheap price.
It’s about making sure that you find that you talk to a person, you find the right piece of equipment, you put it in their hands, they’re happy with it. To then have people come back and show what they’re creating is also very important to us. It shows that we’re doing our role right. The people I hope come back and see me again.
So the future is a good one, I believe. I’ll come back to my binocular sales as I did when I was a kid. Obviously from the under 10 pound film sale to the two to 5,000 pound camera sale, it all excites me still. So, we’ll keep on running how we’re doing, we’ll see what opportunities arise and keep our eyes open and how the market’s changing or going back.
You have a deep interest in people’s passion for photography because that’s part of your own history and a big part of the business. So I think that’s something you just wouldn’t get if you were just an e-commerce business, right?
Yeah, I think if you were just slinging boxes at people, I think it would create more problems in a way. So I’d rather make sure that the person who’s buying from us gets the right product the first time without throwing things backwards and forwards until you hit the right target. It’s not how I would ever want to run a business as well. I think if it came to that stage, I would either drop out or have sold the business on. That again, it’s not my intention to do so. So I’d rather see people achieve success from the help that we give them.
It’s natural that people want to get a good deal, but online there isn’t that customer service that you clearly live and breathe.
It frustrates me sometimes, but we have helped people who haven’t bought equipment from us and they’ve run into trouble. But at the end of the day, they’ve got a camera. We’re here to help people with their equipment. So I’m not going to say, “I’m not dealing with you,” like I have heard some businesses do. Hopefully, they learn from their mistakes and they come and see us the next time they’re looking for a piece of equipment.
So as I said earlier, we try and move the mountain to help people get what they’re looking for, and know they’ve got the right piece of equipment in their hands, and as I said, to get the results that they aim to achieve.
Three years ago, you created a Cambridge Photography Show, and the pandemic stopped that from happening last year. So you introduced something new to replace that last year, didn’t you? Cambridge Photography Week.
Yes. Obviously, we mentioned earlier about the yellow vans going around the country to show. So the Cambridge Photography Show came out of me wanting to set something up here locally to, in a way, give something back to my customer base. It started in Milton Community Center, then the following year we upgraded to the Guildhall. The following year after that, obviously, we got stuck with the pandemic. So we did a virtual Cambridge Photography Week instead of the Cambridge Photography Show. So again, it was all free. So, the shows the customers can come in free. They could interact with the brand trainer and experts, so they could again, find the right product.
The King’s Parade shop is a fantastic shop, but it is a small shop. I can’t always keep every single item that’s available on the market. So to bring the brands into a larger space, to bring as much equipment as they felt like they can bring, it helps me to see if there’s an opportunity that I may have missed, that they have on their supply.
It’s great to see people interact. I’d like to see people face to face in the shop, so the show is probably more me than the virtual event. But again, it helps us communicate with the base of, again, not just Cambridge, but further afield.
It’s fantastic to see that we were still able to recreate the event. Obviously this year we were hoping to recreate the event again. So we have five days a virtual event and one day in the show. So it’s again, the ever-changing world we’re living in, we’re changing and adapting to the event again. So Cambridge Photography Week and Cambridge Photography Show are all combined in one this October.
Clearly you have a love of cameras and photography, but outside of that, what are your other passions?
Well, you and I obviously used to play a lot of hockey together when we were kids. You had other sporting interests. You were a rugby and tennis man, but I was cricket. Even though my school didn’t like the subject of football, what they would prefer to call soccer, I was always mad about it growing up in North London. There are two teams in North London, but I do support the right one.
And I had a little baby girl during the pandemic. So that’s keeping me very occupied.
Well, great. So thanks very much Owen. Let’s grab a coffee and then get back to the shop.
Yeah. Excellent. Sounds good to me.