In the photo industry, the name "Jennifer" represents the much-coveted customer demographic that camera specialty stores want to reach, but at Berkeley, CA-based Looking Glass, "Jennifer" represents the new breed of camera-specialty-store owner. Last month, Looking Glass changed ownership for the second time in 36 years, when the Kaplan family sold the store to longtime employee Jennifer Waicukauski.
The 32-year-old Waicukauski joined the store in 1999 and worked her way up to the position of operations manager. "Jen is a real student of photography," says Bruce Kaplan, former VP/GM, who along with his partners sold the business to Waicukauski. "She grew up with a camera in her hand. She still shoots pinhole photography and manages a mean inventory. Jen was the ideal choice to take this store to the next level. She's held every position in the store and knows how to get the job done."
The Looking Glass story is a remarkable one. It's a store that has adapted to the unique Berkeley community. "Like any independent camera store that remains in business, we have had to reinvent ourselves to adapt to the changes in technology, business model, competition, and change in customers," says Waicukauski. "It goes without saying that success in photo retail today has more to do with pixels, packets, and online networks than chemistry and film, but we still sell all of those elements," says Kaplan.
Looking Glass is a store with an almost cultlike following. Customers include Richard Mizrach, whose work hangs in museums all over the world; Ron Partridge, who assisted Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange and is the son of Imogen Cunningham; and Marion Brenner, who is one of the top garden photographers in the country. The store also serves neighborhood clientele: fresh-faced students taking their first photo class; rank-and-file wedding photographers; and the soccer mom "Jennifer" demographic.
Jennifer Joins Looking Glass
Waicukauski's photographic journey began at an early age. "I was born and raised in Indiana and have been taking pictures since I was 8 years old," she says.
She attended college at the Academy of Art University in 1999, receiving a degree in fine art photography. "When I first started school, I needed to get supplies for my photo classes; I was sent to Looking Glass to purchase them," she recalls. "There was a ‘Help Wanted' sign in the window, and within a few weeks I was working there, which offered me a dual education as well as a job. I started at the counter, moved into buying, then became operations manager.
"I always knew that I wanted to be my own boss and had begun seriously considering buying the store before graduating school. I took some business classes to get my head around what that would truly entail. The only decision left was, ‘Do I go into business, a business that I know inside and out, or do I pursue fine art?' After taking a few years to commit to one, the answer was clear: both. For now, the dream of being my own boss has become a reality, and life as an artist is just a little further down the road. Hopefully, my two paths will eventually support each other.
"In the last decade, many things in the industry and the store have changed, yet key factors remain constant: Customer service still rules, and add-ons make the store profitable. Throughout the time I've been here (and a reputation as a film store), we've grown our volume to almost $4 million with less than 1,200 square feet of selling space."
Looking Glass was founded in 1971 by Peter Pfersick. "Peter was an accomplished photographer and a photo instructor," says Kaplan. "The store focused on film, paper, supplies, and darkroom equipment, as well as a large rental darkroom. It was a cult sort of place."
Peter was infamously quirky and defined the word curmudgeon--he was "old school." "He cared nothing about merchandising, customer service, or the usual formalities," Kaplan says. "Cameras were seen as loss leaders to help promote sales of film and processing. Customers weren't allowed to touch a camera until after they paid for it. Almost all of the store's policies were created to protect it from rip-offs."
Kaplan adds, "The store looked like a supply room, shelves filled to the ceiling (and, honestly, that hasn't changed much given our spatial limitations). It was an incredibly chaotic and visually over-stimulating environment. But it did reinforce the idea that Looking Glass had one of everything photographic you'd ever need, and that with low overhead, you were saving a few bucks. Despite its oddities, it developed a reputation as the place to go for serious photographers, aided by a well-equipped rental darkroom with 12 stations."
This business model allowed the store to experience modest growth over two decades. "In 2000, when Peter saw his health declining and the industry changing, he started looking for a buyer," says Kaplan. "My brother, Jon, a longtime customer and professional photographer, found out that Peter was considering selling the store. Jon had run other businesses and saw the potential in Looking Glass."
After buying the business, Kaplan's brother made some needed improvements, putting in display cases and counters; giving employees health insurance; bringing in computers and creating price sheets and inventory forms; and having a credit-card swipe terminal installed. Working with the Nikon rep, co-op money was put to work. He hired back Cha Levias, who had left Looking Glass for a competitor. Levias brought in Canon and started working to build that brand.
"We started carrying digital cameras, with some resistance from employees and customers who were heavily invested in decades of detailed knowledge of film-based photography," says Waicukauski.
In 2003, a P.O.S. system was added. "Preparing to enter the database of products was a massive task; Jon had identified Jen as someone who could get things done, and she was the primary point person on inputting and standardizing items for the database that would eventually populate our P.O.S. system," says Kaplan.
After a few years, Jon Kaplan felt that running the store was detracting from his career as a photographer. Film, processing, and camera revenues were starting to dip. "Customers didn't perceive us as a digital store," says Bruce Kaplan. "When you walked in, the first things you saw were Dektol, Rodinal, and fixer packets--it was pretty much the industrial Kodak look. And my brother, with 40 years of experience as a master of color printing, didn't want to be the one to lead the store into a digitally dominated world. I had experience leading creative people through technological changes, so my brother asked if I would take over as GM. He went on a photo expedition to Guatemala, gave me the keys to his office, and pretty much has stayed out of it since."
Kaplan notes that it was a struggle that first year when he took over. "I was brought in as a family member, with only a casual background in photography," he says. "Longtime employees thought it was a case of nepotism. Getting the P.O.S. system running was important to gain credibility with the staff. It was a massive project, with upwards of 8,000 SKUs.
"Looking Glass was regarded as the ultimate ‘old school' camera store and had changed very little since the 1970s," Kaplan continues. "The next challenge was to change the attitude of some of the staff. It was felt that ‘sales' was a bad word. There was an uneven understanding of what customer service was all about. This had started with Peter; Jon went a long way to changing this, but I felt we needed to get even more customer-friendly. My first sales meeting with the staff was called ‘Love Thy Customer.'"
Making More Changes
"By this point, revenues had started to dip, as the effect of digital started to show," says Kaplan. "We were doing well over a million dollars a year in revenue that included film-dependent categories: film, processing, photo paper, darkroom supplies and rental, and disposable and film cameras."
Instead of a full-scale remodel, they started small, making the aisles larger, posting a menu of services, and more. "The store still looked like Looking Glass, but it was a little more user-friendly," says Kaplan.
Waicukauski reports that through training, attrition, and rehiring, they created a staff that was personable and knowledgeable about both film and digital and completely focused on customer service. "We started doing basic sales training; we added spiffs on selected add-ons, promoting extended warrantees and building bundles that offered a total solution," she says. "We taught people the basics, like to always ask for the sale. This was a new culture for Looking Glass, but the staff adapted incredibly well." Today, the staff numbers about 15.