Hunter Crenshaw and his friends clustered on a Koreatown sidewalk Thursday in bright, glittering outfits and bold accessories, eager for their turn to have their pictures taken at a hole-in-the-wall photo studio that basically hasn’t changed since the 1990s.
They were there because Kacey Musgraves told them to go.
The Grammy-winning country artist and her sister happened upon Tom’s One Hour Photo this week and fell in love with it, and Wednesday they gave the quiet shop — which has no website and doesn’t even take credit cards — a giant boost on social media. Since then, her fans and other people chasing a nostalgic look have flocked to Tom’s.
Joanne Davenport, 21, showed up with her friend, actress Maude Apatow — a Musgraves fan — to get photos taken in matching plaid print tube dresses. She said the retro yearbook-picture vibe was what drew her. Sixty-year-old Tom Tuong, the store’s owner, photographer and only full-time worker, unfurled a cheerful backdrop printed with a rainbow and leafy tree branches. Davenport sat on a short white column, leaned her elbow against another, and smiled for the picture.
The phone rang all day. Around noon, Tuong’s wife, Lisa Le, noted they’d missed 17 calls. Two of Tuong’s nieces stopped by to check in, bringing water bottles and beer, and Le asked them to stay and help. She couldn’t remember the last time the store had been this busy. In the afternoon, the stream of customers grew to a flood.
Tuong’s shop was popular when it opened in 1991. But as the digital-camera era ramped up, business dwindled. There’s less demand for developing film or printing wallet-size photos, and Tuong said whole days could pass without a single customer stepping in for a portrait in the small studio at the back of the store.
The store’s walls are plastered with sepia-tone wedding photos and faded glamour shots Tuong has taken over the years; girls posing — a hand on their hip, or behind their head, or looking back over their shoulder — against patterned backdrops. Tuong said some of those girls have since come back to the store to have their own kids’ photos taken. Dusty gumball machines filled with little toys sit in a corner, near a small pinball machine. Though the name advertises “one hour” film development, Tuong said he hasn’t been able to do that in years. Instead, he develops film overnight. It’s too expensive to run the machine for a lone customer.
Businesses focused on analog media, such as newsstands and video-rental stores, have suffered a heavy blow in recent years. One-hour photo processing shops vanished especially quickly. A Bloomberg report from 2015 counted only 190 one-hour photo shops in the United States, down from 3,066 in 1998 and 7,600 in 1993. Some old trends, such as disposable cameras and the grainy, light-streaked photos they produce, have recently made a comeback among young people, but Tuong said he hadn’t noticed them bringing any significant boost to his business. Some months, he said, Tom’s would lose money and his wife — who works at a West Hollywood nail salon — would give the store a cash infusion from her own earnings.
Then Musgraves arrived.
The singer-songwriter was in Los Angeles on tour, accompanied by her sister, Kelly Christine Sutton, who snapped some behind-the-scenes photos on film. Sutton wanted the pictures developed before leaving town, so she consulted Yelp and brought the film to Tom’s One-Hour Photo on Monday.
“I felt like I was in a time capsule. ... There’s something so nostalgic about the portraits he’s made,” Sutton, herself a professional photographer, said in a phone interview. She brought her sister and her sister’s makeup artist back for a photo session the same day.
Musgraves said she loves places that miraculously have lasted without modern marketing schemes or technology, “seemingly unaware that they’re actually a gold mine for the retro revolution currently happening in my generation but not knowing how to or being able to adapt.”
One can see why the ambiance resonated with Musgraves, who often sports a nostalgia-laden aesthetic. She has cultivated the look, seamlessly blending influences from the 1970s through the 1990s of her own childhood.
She and Sutton decided to give the store a boost. The pair started compiling photos and creating an Instagram account focusing on the shop, and on Wednesday they began to heavily promote it. They could have simply tagged the store in a post on Musgraves’ own Instagram, but they wanted to do something bigger. Their own parents have run a mom-and-pop print shop in Texas for about 30 years.
“We were raised in a small town, small-business household where ends sometimes were barely met. I think that’s why I have a soft spot for the dreamer ... the underdog,” Musgraves told the Los Angeles Times in an email. “I worked [in my parents’ shop] during my high school years answering phones, making copies, and rolling my eyes. I remember his own frustration and worry when Walmart came to town and home printers became a trend. Because who needs to order business cards or invitations anymore when you can just print your own?”
Tuong’s shop “deserved more than one little post,” Sutton said. “It’s so easy for us to just do it.” Plus, she said, Tuong’s history as an immigrant appealed to them: “It’s really important to highlight people like that in this particular time.”
“Let’s keep this charming business afloat!” Musgraves wrote on her Instagram. She pushed the @tomsonehourphotolab Instagram account to her followers, who number more than a million. The store’s account racked up more than 45,000 followers by Friday afternoon.
The attention translated into customers. “She said ‘a lot of people will be calling you,’ and she was right,” Tuong said.
Tom’s One Hour Photo is a largely one-man show. Sometimes Tuong’s wife, Le, comes in to help, but she works at the nail salon most days. In recent years, Tom’s usually has made enough to cover the storefront’s rent — nearly $2,000 a month — and other costs, Tuong said, but certainly not enough to hire additional employees.
Tuong and Le moved to Southern California in 1979 from Vietnam, and Tuong has been taking photos for nearly as long as they’ve lived here, shooting weddings as well as portraits before Tom’s opened. The business supported them as they raised their children, a son and a daughter, now in their 20s.
At one point Tom’s had two other locations, but eventually he had to shut those down, he said. The Koreatown store has been his core space, and even though some months it loses money, he has been reluctant to let go of it. He loves photography, and he has worried he is too old to be hired somewhere else.
The store is rich with his family history. Its small studio is equipped with more than 30 backdrops, many of which Tuong painted himself about two decades ago. He bought heavy canvas, cut it into large pieces, and decorated each with a theme — glowy butterflies, roses, wineglasses, sparkles, the Playboy bunny. One contains tiny footprints. The tiny feet are his son Nick’s, who as a child stood on the canvas as Tuong sprayed white paint around them.
Now an engineer, Nick Tuong believes fundamentally in technological advancement. He is surprised at the recent resurgence of film, and the nostalgia-tinted photographs people want instead of crisper digital images. But he’s happy his father’s store is a part of it. “Some good things are timeless for a reason,” he said.
Sutton hopes Tom’s grows from its newfound fame.“I hope this isn’t a fleeting success. I hope it’s something sustainable,” she said, adding that she would understand if Tom Tuong doesn’t want to become a social media sensation and would prefer his life to stay the way it is.
“We never wanted to change Tom into this modern Instagram type of businessman,” Sutton said. “We still want him to be the same Tom. Hopefully he’ll figure out ways to appeal to younger markets and younger customers.”
For now, Musgraves and Sutton are running the Instagram account. “I don’t know how much longer we’ll be running it,” Sutton says, but she plans on handing the reins to someone committed to growing his business, if that’s what Tuong wants.
Tuong was taken by surprise — and he’s not sure yet what he wants to do with his business’s newfound popularity. He said he will need help figuring out the way forward. Tuong, at least, has the support of his family. His children turned up Thursday evening after wrapping up their own workdays, and they joined his wife and nieces in helping at the store until the last customer left, well after the usual 7 p.m. closing time.
Times staff writer Dorany Pineda contributed to this report.