A look back at the photography retailer, which will shut down in August.
“Black’s is Photography.” Or at least it was until yesterday, when Telus announced that it will shut the chain’s 59 remaining stores by August 8. A spokesperson blamed the 85-year-old brand’s demise on changing technology and the costs associated with making its recent revamp succeed.
Perhaps Telus, who has owned the chain since 2009, heeded advice Eddie Black gave his sons: “Don’t hang in too long.”
Black’s traced its origins to 1930, when Eddie Black used a $500 loan from his parents (who owned a grocery store at Spadina and Lonsdale in Forest Hill) to open a radio and appliance shop at 1440 Yonge Street. Nine years later, sensing public interest in photography on the eve of the royal visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, he began carrying a small selection of cameras. The first batch sold out quickly.
When Eddie decided to open a larger store several doors north at 1424 Yonge, his eldest sons Bill and Bob proposed selling fishing gear, guns, and photographic equipment out of the old location. Eddie agreed, setting them up with a loan to launch those lines under his name in 1948. Within a year, the store dropped its outdoors goods. Besides retailing, the brothers offered lectures in their basement and ran equipment shows.
Sixty years later, Bob Black described the environment in which he began selling photographic equipment:
When we first started our store, the cameras were almost painful to use because they were so complicated. You had to focus, cock the shutter, set the lens opening and speed, set your flash, and figure out the proper distance. Photography often required a tripod. If you had slides, you needed slide trays, a projector, and a screen. Movies needed splicers, reels, and cans. Picture taking was a lot more than just the push of a button as it is today. Our timing, however, was perfect. In less than a decade, the camera went from being a specialty item to a common family purchase.
From the beginning, Black’s made good use of advertising. It sponsored a show on CFRB, “Black’s Camera Club of the Air,” which dispensed advice and previewed new products. Pitchmen included humourist Henry Morgan and Front Page Challenge host Fred Davis. The “Black’s is Photography” campaign developed by Saffer Advertising in the early 1980s used Martin Short to get that point across. Many of the ads featuring Short were improvised and sometimes mistakes made it into the final product, such as the time a spooked St. Bernard dragged the comedian across the set. It wasn’t the only time Black’s dealt with animal shenanigans; during an ad shoot at Bayview Village in the late 1970s, an elephant was depicted twirling a roll of film with its trunk before dropping it off with a clerk. “The elephant crapped all over the floor,” Bill Black later remembered.
Expansion into a chain began during the 1950s. Its fourth store, opened at Eglinton Square in 1954, launched its association with malls and plazas. There were hiccups along the way—the company was targeted by the federal government in 1962 over the definition of “regular” price under the recently passed Combines Investigation Act.
One of Black’s innovations was enlarging the standard size of photo prints. Up through the mid-1970s, customers usually picked up 3.5×5 prints. Sensing competition from instant cameras, management decided it needed something to set them apart. The answer was a larger 4×6 photo. When Black’s contacted Kodak to build a custom printer, they were told such machines would only be able to produce the new size. Introduced in 1977, the larger prints took off, eventually becoming the industry norm.
By the mid-1980s, a dozen members of the Black family worked for the company. They sensed the time was right to sell due to record profits, no debts, and private fears about how digital technology would affect the business. The 105-store chain was sold for $100 million to Scott’s Hospitality, which owned franchises for Kentucky Fried Chicken (“Scott’s Chicken Villa”) and Holiday Inn. The new owners doubled the number of stores to 210, and launched a short-lived foray into the United States. Subsequent owners included Fuji Film (1993-2007) and private equity firm ReichmannHauer (2007-2009).
When Telus picked up Black’s, by then reduced to 113 locations, for $28 million in 2009, it was to boost its shopping-mall presence in the wake of rival Bell’s purchase of The Source. “There’s a convergence going on between wireless and photography and Black’s is particularly well suited to take advantage of that,” Telus executive Robert McFarlane told the Globe and Mail. But adapting to the rapid changes in digital technology and how people display and store images proved too much of a challenge. A recent revamp, which included ditching the apostrophe from the chain’s name, increased profitability, but was deemed too pricey an initiative to succeed.
Black’s will soon be a memory, like those it long boasted of preserving among its customers.
Additional material from Picture Perfect: The Story of Black’s Photography by Robert Black with Marnie Maguire (Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2009) and the April 24, 2009 and September 9, 2009 editions of the Globe and Mail.