It's a cloudy March afternoon in the city of Long Beach, NY, and the month still resembles a lion more than a lamb. But the chill in the air is offset by the friendly warmth experienced by walking down Park Avenue, the main thoroughfare that dissects this Long Island seaside community. Residents stroll down the sidewalks, window-shopping or stopping by the local kosher deli for a pastrami on rye.
It's that same warmth that emanates from the inside of Tilben Photo & Electronics as soon as we walk through the front entrance. Owner Steve Sedlik waves to us from behind the cell-phone counter. A young blond-haired woman confers with manager Chet Hoff, hunched over her cell phone as she tries to explain her latest dilemma. And the kiosk stations are abuzz, as Mr. Kaslo, a regular customer, asks for help in editing his Hawaiian vacation photos, while Mrs. Mendoza, another longtime patron, starts up her own kiosk station after making some small talk with another employee.
Just another day at Long Beach's oldest retail store, where customer service and forays into technology have kept it one of the city's most successful businesses since before the Second World War.
All in the Family
Tilben was established in 1938 by Sedlik's grandfather. "The name Tilben comes from my grandmother's and grandfather's first names: Tilly and Ben," says Sedlik. "They bought the whole building, and they lived up above the store. My grandmother lived up there until she was 98."
Tilben started out as a gift store in 1938, evolving into a photo and gift store by 1950. In 1960, its wares progressed to music and photo ("we had records, 45s, other music accessories," says Sedlik). By the early 1980s, however, the store had morphed into an early incarnation of what it is today: photo and cellular services. "We got rid of the music and got into the cellular, and it's been that way ever since," says Sedlik. "When one area slows down, another area picks up. And if something doesn't work, try something else. The dedicated square footage can change in a second!"
When the digital revolution hit, Tilben jumped right in. "We started with digital passport photosówe were one of the first people to do that," says Sedlik. "We still use a SmartMedia card with the system; it's an old system, but it still works, and we haven't changed it, even though we've looked at other systems."
The store's original 4,000 sq. ft. was recently pared down to about 2,000 sq. ft., thanks to an extensive three-month renovation that was just completed in February. "We got rid of the photo studio; it wasn't profitable and didn't pay for the square footage," says Sedlik. "I don't know if that had to do with the population in the area or whatówe tried it for a number of years. I spent about $60,000 on equipment and renovations. Luckily, we were able to stay in the other closed-off section while this side was being worked on, so we had a temporary home."
Today the front of the store is dominated by accessories (iPod paraphernalia), small electronics (tape recorders, Walkmans, watches), batteries and computer-related equipment (USB hubs, cables and surge protectors); the middle section features the camera and cell-phone counters, as well as a dedicated albums and frames selection and the passport studio; and the back features the Fuji Frontier 340 one-hour minilab, the Canon IPF700 large-format printer, and three Fuji Aladdin digital photo centers, set on a table with chairs so customers can comfortably work on their images.
Tilben's services run the gamut, with many of its offerings geared toward the needs of its clientele. "We do custom sign-in boards and design custom cards and invitations, for example," says Sedlik. "We do photo restorations, some on the premises and some that are farmed out to Hollywood Fotofix."
Sedlik acknowledges that his best investment for the store was the one-hour photo lab. "We bought it five years ago, and it's made a lot of money," he says. "Not so much on the printing. While the 4x6 printing is OK, it's the enlarging service that's led to the higher profitability. We started with one kiosk, then two, and now we're up to a third."
Another offering that is making major inroads at Tilben is its digital transfer service. "We didn't do too much of it 10 years ago, but now we do it quite a bit," says Sedlik. "We remind people that there's no telling the longevity of the VHS and 8mm formats they have, so bring it over. CD, 8mm, VHS: you name it, we do it in-house. It's amazing how much money can be made with this stuff."
Perhaps the store's biggest boon has been its involvement with the cellular market. "There has been a big merge of photography with cellular," explains Sedlik. "They're up to 5MP cell phones in Japan, which they haven't imported here yet."
Tilben started out with AT&T, but jumped over to Verizon about 12 years ago. "Verizon came along and gave us the chance to be a master agent instead of a sub agent working through a masteróthat intrigued me," says Sedlik. "I knew it was the time to go with Verizon, especially since they supposedly were up-and-coming. I know we made the right move; now in the New York metro area, they're the number-one provider."
The opportunity to get into cellular just made sense to Sedlik. "We're finding the cell phones are taking the same media cards and readers as the cameras; the accessories are merging," he says. "The kiosks we have now have Bluetooth, so you can transfer images via Bluetooth. The residuals you get from cellular helps pay for your rent. But it is a different kind of marketóit's photo, cellular, music. It requires a lot more of a technical aspect and dedication than photo alone."