Community Commentary: Cal's Camera closing brings back a flood of memories

When I reached a magic milestone this summer and planted both feet firmly into geezerdom I knew I probably wouldn't like the changes in store for me. Sure enough, almost simultaneous with my birthday, the wheels began to come off — a little stiffness in a knee, a little skin cancer to be dealt with and the first whopper of a cold this year. However, I was not ready for the latest change — Cal's Cameras is closing forever!

At the end of the recent City Council study session a friend, observing my ever-present camera, casually mentioned that Cal's was closing. It was like a punch in the gut for me. I've spent so much time at Cal's Cameras over the past three decades that I feel almost like a member of the family.

Cal's has been an institution on Newport Boulevard almost 50 years. I've shopped there exclusively for my camera needs for more than 30 of those. I always knew that I could find knowledgeable, professional staff members, ready and able to answer every question and to match my needs and budget to the right camera. I knew that I could find whatever accessory I needed, either for myself or for a gift. I also knew that by purchasing items at Cal's I'd probably be paying a few dollars more than at some of the discount outlets — and, more recently, online — but it was worth it to me. I wanted to support local businesses and Cal's represented what I considered to be the best of our local vendors.

I remember the good old days, when customers outnumbered staffers and professional photographers made Cal's their first stop when shopping for a new rig or piece of equipment. We novices would rub elbows with them and eavesdrop on their conversations, trying to pick up pointers. I remember taking a new camera back because the technology had me baffled and receiving a personal tutorial by a staff member, who patiently walked me through the dials, buttons and menus until I felt comfortable. It was a great place to shop.

So, this week I made it a point to drop in to Cal's to see if the rumor was true. It was. When I walked through the door of the showroom that had been extensively remodeled a few years ago there were only three people in sight — all staff members I've known for decades. Sadly, this has been the case more and more in recent years. Every time I've visited the store in the past couple years I've seen folks come in, pick the brain of staff members, then wander out without making a purchase — probably heading home to buy a camera on Amazon.com.

At a time when that stretch of Newport Boulevard — Costa Mesa's old downtown section — is struggling to remain a viable retail center, one of the anchor businesses will close its doors forever by Thanksgiving. Discount signs now adorn most of the displays and the "deals" will get better as we approach November, until every camera, box of film — they do sell film — tripod and camera case is gone.

Cal and his family own the building and will try to lease it to another retailer. As I wistfully looked around the store this week I could imagine an upscale clothing boutique fitting quite nicely, but it still made me sad. I understand the economics that forced this decision, but Cal's closing will be the end of an era.

So, I paid for some ink cartridges for the high-end printer I bought there a few years ago, said my final goodbyes to the staffers who will now have to try to find another job in the worst economy in my memory and walked out the door for the final time.

GEOFF WEST is a Costa Mesa resident and author of a local blog, A Bubbling Cauldron.

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