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Focusing in on 5 decades of snapshots

Beloved Cal's Camera, which once boasted about $10 million in annual sales, couldn't remain competitive with big box stores, Internet.

October 17, 2011|By Sarah Peters
(Courtesy Costa…)

COSTA MESA — There's not much left on the stockroom shelves of Cal's Cameras & Video except for decades-old boxes of glass slides, now considered relics in this era of digital photography.

The store at 1770 Newport Blvd. once boasted an inventory of more than 1 million units, overflowing with photographic paper, film and developing supplies, and annual sales of about $10 million, said Cal's founder, Cal Stilley, 87.

"The wall used to [be] full of all types of photographic paper and chemicals," he said of his showroom's far wall, which is now lined by two digital print stations. "There were no holes on [the] shelves anywhere."

Cal's, which opened in 1962 and settled into its current location in the mid-70s, is closing next month after 49 years.

"On one hand, we're sad, but on the other hand, we're very happy," said Stilley's son, Mark Stilley, 63, who oversees the business' daily operations. "It's been a long, good run. The business has been good to the entire family, and we couldn't be any more grateful."

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Stilley's six children, and a few of his nine grandchildren, have been Cal's employees at one time or another.

The brightly lit showroom is still full of equipment, supplies and books — much of which is marked 30% off — as the inventory is slowly but surely clearing out.

For years the store sold photo paper and chemicals, the hobby shop's bread and butter, but with the advent of digital cameras, those items became obsolete, the elder Stilley said.

"Big box stores and the Internet have drawn tremendous retail profit from conventional stores," Cal Stilley said. "We tried to remain competitive, but the problem for the legitimate camera store is that all our basics are gone."

But while Internet wholesalers can't be beat on prices, the small independent business owner had the one thing the Internet did not: a flesh-and-blood staff of friendly camera experts.

"It was very enjoyable," Cal Stilley said. "People came into the store because they wanted to be there, because it was their hobby. They always had a smile on their face."

sarah.peters@latimes.com

Twitter: @speters01

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