This is another in an occasional series of stories about Interior Alaska businesses that have closed permanently due to the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. If you know of a business that has closed permanently, email Editor Rod Boyce at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For almost 40 years, Alaska Camera has been the one-stop-shop for photography enthusiasts in Fairbanks. The store sold cameras, lenses and other gear; it rented out photographic equipment and offered printing services. On May 12, however, the store’s co-owners, Tom Payer and Wendy Hooker, announced via Facebook that Alaska Camera would close its doors June 1 and hold a liquidation sale starting May 13, due to lost revenue related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Payer and Hooker became the fourth set of owners of Alaska Camera after buying the business in 2015. The couple met in New Hampshire before moving to Fairbanks, where they’ve raised six kids. Payer served in the Marines before the couple moved. He said that his first experience of Alaska was spending 18 months stationed in Adak, on the Aleutian chain.
“It’s got weather like New England, but no trees!” he said. “After spending 18 months there, I thought: ‘I’ve got to, some day, come back to the real Alaska and see what it’s really like.’”
Alaska Camera opened in 1981, the same year the couple packed up their Toyota with two dogs and a canoe on the top, drove north and settled in a dry cabin in Fairbanks. They said they were customers almost since day one.
Prior to buying Alaska Camera, Payer worked at The Boat Shop for roughly three decades. Hooker had a massage business, Health Quest Massage, which she continues to operate. Amid jumping the hurdles of closing Alaska Camera, Hooker is currently grappling with the various public health restrictions and conditions now involved in commercially providing massages. While the pair owned and ran Alaska Camera equally, it was Payer’s passion for photography that led to the purchase of the business.
“I had a camera in my hand since probably around when I went into the service in 1971,” Payer said. “It became easier once digital came in. That’s when I started my own photography business.”
Payer started his photography business in 2010. Both Payer and Hooker said that they “fell into” owning Alaska Camera. Kevin Rice, Alaska Camera’s previous owner, was a regular customer at the Boat Shop. As such, Payer and Rice were familiar. In 2015, Rice told Payer that he and his family had decided to move to Washington, D.C.
“He was not trying to sell the business. I think he was just going to liquidate,” Payer said. “He started talking with me, as a customer, and he knew I was a photographer. And he just invited us up to his house one day and asked if we were interested in purchasing the business.”
At the time, the couple didn’t feel they were in the right state financially to buy a business. They called upon a friend of Hooker’s, who works as a certified public accountant, to crunch the numbers. That sealed the deal.
“He could look at the numbers and go ‘this business makes money,’” Payer said. “And Kevin really went out of his way to get us into this business. He sold it to us for probably much less than he could have if he wanted to sell it.”
According to Payer, Rice was moving imminently and selling the business was likely more convenient than trying to liquidate on a time crunch. But the couple agreed that Rice was also keen to see the Fairbanks favorite continue operating.
“So we bought it in April 2015,” said Hooker. “And this was new to us.”
The pair had never run a retail business, nor had either of them managed employees. But they needn’t have worried; in fact, they both now consider the relationships they built with their staff as one of the great rewards of the business.
“If there’s one thing that we’re sad about, it’s our employees,” Payer said. “We had a good family of employees here. They’re sticking with us to the end. And we won’t lose contact. I think we’ll be friends with them forever here in Fairbanks.”
Owning a retail business, Payer said, is a conduit for making friends. The store hosted photography groups, which would meet up on Saturdays and, weather dependent, take a stroll somewhere scenic to make photographs. Payer said he often offered lessons for things like photoshop. Alaska Camera was a pillar of Fairbanks’ photography scene.
Hooker said business was looking up until January, which began auspiciously.
“Right after Christmas, we noticed that our sales were way down,” she said. “And I was worried because our lease was up in April.”
“And it was a five-year lease,” Payer said, “which is a huge commitment to have to make.”
In February, sales were still down. By that point the coronavirus was spreading across the world and the writing was on the wall. Hooker managed to successfully negotiate the terms of a one-year lease with the landlord, but anxiety over the recent drop in sales prevented her from signing it.
“And then we had the mandated closure. And that was five weeks,” Hooker said. “And we still didn’t think that was the end. We didn’t really feel like it was the end. We got the PPP loan, we got some of the EIDL money, we were ready to come back.”
By the time Alaska Camera was allowed to reopen, Hooker said, some of the store’s suppliers weren’t answering calls because they, too, had mandated closures. Those that did answer weren’t always able to provide the products that Alaska Camera was requesting.
“You don’t realize how much stuff comes from China,” Payer said. “It could be raw product, but it could be parts. China is one of the largest manufacturers of sensors for cameras. Well they make those sensors for a lot of different vendors. It wasn’t just like Sony couldn’t get them. Nikon couldn’t get them, and so on. It was a trickle down effect.”
The couple had always known that a large portion of their business came during tourist seasons, when travellers wanted to photograph the northern lights, ice sculptures or winter sport events.
“But I don’t think anyone ever realized it was about half of a business,” Hooker said. “And that’s what we found out. About 50%, maybe even a little bit more, was tourism.”
After consulting some accountants, Payer said their best option was to liquidate and close up shop.
“You’re on a knife edge right now, but you could liquidate and at least not have any debt when you’re done,” Payer said. “It’s not what I was hoping for. This was going to be my retirement and now I’m kind of back to square one.”
The couple are planning on keeping some sides of the business running. They want to continue renting out equipment and intend to retain some of the lab supplies so they can keep printing photographs for customers. The name of this new business is yet to be determined.
“The retail business will go away,” Payer said. “Retail is such a tough business. It’s a stressful business. 20 years ago, when you didn’t have online sales, it wasn’t as bad.”
What kept Alaska Camera going, Payer said, was the community that it cultivated. On Wednesday, the first day of the liquidation sale, it was this group that came to the store’s rescue. The couple were profuse in their thanks for the support they received.
“Yesterday they came out in droves to support us,” Payer said. “It was a phenomenal day for us. Last night Wendy and I thought, for the first time: ‘We’re going to make it.’”
Hooker and Payer are hoping to open their new rental and printing business sometime around July. Alaska Camera’s liquidation sale will run through May 31. The store is located at 1235 Airport Way.
Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.