SCHENECTADY — The Photo-Lab in downtown Schenectady is shutting down after 107 years of operation by the same family.
Owner John Eoff said the decision was pretty much forced, as there’s rainwater dripping through the ceiling into his unheated store.
At 69, he’s ready to retire. He just wishes he wasn’t dressing in layers to keep warm and laying out tarps to protect his remaining merchandise as mold and rust spread in the store.
“It’s not ending the way I wanted,” Eoff said Friday.
He and his business are caught up in a continuing saga of deterioration on the corner of State Street and Erie Boulevard, one of the most prominent intersections in the city.
Next door is what’s often called The Wedgeway Building, the former State Theater. The city and building owner William Eichengrun have been tussling over code violations and fines for more than two years without resolution. A fence remains in place along Erie Boulevard to protect pedestrians from the chance of falling debris.
The Photo-Lab building, which bears the Kresge name near the roofline, could be mistakenly seen as part of the same building. It’s not, but it has the same owner, and it has problems of its own.
Eoff gave Eichengrun an ultimatum in September: He wasn’t going to pay his rent until the roof was fixed. He was soon served with an eviction notice. The lawyers spoke to each other, and Eoff won’t have to pay rent for October and November if he’s out by Nov. 30.
Another ultimatum led to the business being formed in 1914.
Eoff’s grandfather Beverly was an editor for General Electric when he started moonlighting as a film processor and photo printer. GE eventually told him to pick one or the other: his day job or his sideline.
“Kodak had popularized photography at that time,” Eoff said.
Beverley quit GE and founded The Photo-Lab.
The new business rotated through several locations in its early years: Regent Street, Wall Street, two addresses on Jay Street, and 271 State St. It has been at 273 State St. since 1949 — 72 years.
Ironically, it has been out of the photo processing business for about as long.
After Beverly Jr.’s service as a Navy photographer in World War II, he joined the family business. But by that time, many people were sending their color film to Kodak to process in Rochester, John Eoff said, and then Beverly Jr.’s black-and-white processing employee decided to strike out on his own.
So The Photo-Lab became not a photo lab but a retail store, selling cameras, photography equipment, and, for a long time, greeting cards.
It’s an odd combination, Eoff acknowledges now, but it was the convention in the mid-20th century: Camera stores devoted half their floor space to greeting cards, which yielded a 50% profit margin.
Downtown State Street was a different world in 1949, packed with retailers, including two other camera shops and several department stores. The 30,000 or so workers at GE flowed through in three shifts a day, and there was a traffic policeman’s booth at State and Erie to control it all.
John, the only son of Beverly Jr., was born into this environment and has watched it change ever since, mostly for the worse.
Downtown Schenectady decayed and nearly died from countless cuts, but Eoff said there were several particularly hard blows that hit his business:
- The advent of suburban malls.
- The departure of shoppers from downtown.
- Manufacturers’ initial attempts to steer the early digital cameras to mass marketers and electronics stores instead of camera shops.
- The rise of online retail.
- The rise of social media networks emphasizing photography speed over quality.
- The advent of cellphones that could provide that speed.
And then COVID-19.
The pandemic shut the store down for more than three months and led Eoff to discharge his only employee.
Between COVID and the worsening condition of his building, he had the sense the business was on its final lap, and he began thinning down his inventory.
Eoff, who as a youth wanted nothing to do with The Photo-Lab, spent a summer working there in his mid-20s and never looked back.
“It’s been a real labor of love,” he said Friday.
Eoff and his wife, Marie, a recently retired nurse, plan to take a break from the cleanup/cleanout and watch one more Schenectady Holiday Parade from their storefront next weekend.
Then the six-day workweeks will end for Eoff and The Photo-Lab will be gone.