Charlie Black is the first to admit this isn’t the way he wanted the business to go out.
But there’s still a twinkle in his eye when the 84-year-old owner of Pennington Photo tells you: “I feel like I’m forced into this early retirement.”
Pennington’s is locking its doors for good in April, and perhaps the biggest wonder is how it survived until now. The niche for small-town camera stores is long gone. For Black, online competition, combined with the recent recession, finally spelled doom. He wanted to run the store until it turned 110 in 2016.
“I would be 90. I figured that was a good age to retire. That was my goal,” Black said. “I feel bad to disappoint our loyal customers.”
William Pennington opened Pennington Studio in 1906. It has moved up and down Main Avenue several times, but it has had only four owners. Frank Stepleton bought it in 1935, shutting it down briefly to serve during World War II. Black purchased it in 1964 and sold it in 1980 to Dana Helvey, who in 1990 kept the studio but gave the camera store back to Black.
Let’s face it, this is not an easy time to operate a family-owned business in America. On top of that, in Durango, high rents and parking issues can hinder downtown-area stores. Another Main Avenue icon, Hogan’s Store, which opened in 1929, closed earlier this year.
Rufe’s Paint Store, the only original Town Plaza business still owned by the same family, is finding times difficult in its 48th year. Major culprits: a construction lull, an economic downturn and more competition.
“This is the toughest we’ve ever encountered,” said Bob Romero, who co-owns the store with brother Mike. Their dad, Durango native and former owner Rufe Romero, still helps out at age 78.
Bob Romero said he appreciates people who buy from locally owned businesses, sometimes at a higher cost. The personal service they offer, the knowledge and quality product aren’t so readily found at chain stores. Plus, buying locally helps keep the cash around. When you purchase at a chain store, profits flow to corporate headquarters.
“The money stays in the community,” Romero said. “People need to understand that.”
The Pennington name lives on with Pennington Studio, which Helvey still operates on County Road 203. Helvey said it’s one of the oldest, if not the oldest, studios in the Four Corners.
Getting the news that Pennington Photo was closing came as “quite a shock.”
“It’s just a shame,” he said last week. “And it’s a statement of the changing technology and changing times.”
In 1964, a co-worker in Pueblo told Charlie Black about a camera shop in Durango that was for sale. On a Saturday, Black called his employer, Broome Brothers Camera Shop, informed them he was sick, then drove to Durango, where snow was piled a dozen feet high in the middle of Main Avenue.
“Hmm, do I really want to come over here?” he asked himself.
Black was born in tiny Anson, Texas. He got to know Southwest Colorado as he was moving around for his job in the oil business. In 1955-56, he, his wife, Jeanette, and kids lived in Mancos as he worked the fields in the Four Corners.
So the children could settle in a school, Charlie quit the nomadic oil biz in 1957, and the Blacks moved to Pueblo, where Jeanette got a teaching job. (Jeanette died in 1997.) Charlie found work at Broome Brothers in the Hallmark card department, but he slid over to the camera section whenever he could.
The snow piles didn’t dissuade him, and the family moved to Durango. Business was good. Pennington’s had the only one-day film service around. Black still can describe the 1½-hour process used to develop color film, using seven different chemical tanks, a drying cabinet, printer and gas-powered drying drums.
Black has plenty of stories – of his stint on a Navy minesweeper, of using messy flash powder, of melting when he looked into Mia Farrow’s eyes (she was here to film the movie “Avalanche”).
Helvey said that when he bought Pennington’s in 1980, it was the only place to go for both camera equipment and photo finishing. When a competing photo lab opened, it just about halved his profit margin. Helvey couldn’t make it work, and Black took it back over.
Then came the competition from mail-order, online and big-box stores – the digital age. Black cut costs where he could and made the move from the 1000 block of Main to the 700 block to increase business. It didn’t help.
Black feels he’s letting people down – employees, customers, himself. But the bread and butter of the business today, making large prints, isn’t enough to keep it going.
“In the end, the overhead just eats you up,” he said.
There’s still a downtown draw for local shoppers, a diverse selection of businesses that includes a couple of bike shops, music stores, shoe and clothing stores and outdoor shops for starters. But more of Main is becoming T-shirt and gift shops, bars and restaurants and art galleries – places geared toward tourists.
Main certainly hasn’t lost all its charm and hometown feel – locals outnumber tourists other than on summer evenings. But it’s changing, little by little. Helvey says he’s proud to tell people he lives in a place with a true, personable downtown.
“I live in a town that has a Main Street, USA,” he said, but added: “Every little chink in that armor reduces our appeal to the outside world.”
Black will liquidate the merchandise and sell the lab equipment. By the end of April, Pennington’s will be shuttered for good.
If you ventured down Main at just the right time last week, you saw workers removing the “G” or the “O” from above Hogan’s entrance. Sorrel Sky art gallery is moving in there soon, just as a new business will take over Pennington’s spot.
Change is inevitable and constant, but sometimes it comes with a heavy heart. Just ask Charlie Black.
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.