By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — You shouldn’t be surprised if Tom Brady knows your name the moment you walk into Camera Craft for a second time. He might even know what camera you shoot with and what new gear is on your mind.
Brady, who has owned the camera store he bought from his father for more than 25 years, has built a reputation for his personable and patient approach to customer service during a decades-long career that started with him helping his dad around the shop when he was just 10.
“Every time I walked into the store it just felt like I was walking into a room with people who knew me,” said Mindy Joy Nutter Young, a professional photographer and longtime Camera Craft customer. “Every time he was there he would greet me with a smile and he would remember my name.”
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Now, Brady is ready to step away from being behind the counter and spend more time behind the lens. He plans to retire in April and do more of the type of travel and landscape photography that made him fall in love with the art decades ago.
His last few months at Camera Craft, 3801 N. Perryville Road, before retirement promise to be busy. Brady is actively searching for a buyer for the business so that Camera Craft, which has served customers in Rockford for roughly a century, can continue for decades to come. It’s the last independent and locally owned camera store in the city.
“For me to see him leave, it’s kind of like the end of an era for the community,” said Vicky Larson, who started working at the store in 1994 and retired to part-time status about a year ago. He’s been “so much a part of the photo industry in this town, and it would be even more devastating if the store is no longer existent.”
Brady, who turns 67 in April, got his first experience working at Camera Craft in the mid-1960s when it was located downtown. He helped his father, Bob Brady, on Saturday mornings doing janitorial work such as cleaning floors and merchandise. He was fascinated by all the camera gear.
“I loved spending time with my dad, as he taught me about photography and an endless assortment of cameras and related photo gear,” Brady said, “and how to treat people with kindness.”
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That kindness showed in Brady’s interactions with customers, said David Seigel, who worked at the store for about 29 years before moving on last February.
“When I started at Camera Craft I was astonished at the fact that he seemed to know every single person who came through the door,” Seigel said. “Tom has an infectious level of enthusiasm and he listens very, very well. That combination makes for a really engaging conversation every time you meet him.”
Brady started working at the shop in earnest in the early 1970s, and in 1997 he purchased it from his father.
The store has long had family ties: All seven of Brady’s siblings spent time working there over the years. His brother Pat Brady still runs the office today. “I couldn’t do it without him,” Tom Brady says.
His five children also all worked at Camera Craft while in high school and college.
“Being an owner of a small business requires a lot of time — a lot of time — and sometimes that meant sacrifices from my family, who nevertheless supported me through challenging times and good times,” he said. “I am very blessed to have such a wonderful family.”
Brady’s decision to retire comes on the heels of his best-ever year in business, he said. Getting to that point, however, meant withstanding a tumultuous 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic took hold and wreaked havoc on his shop and other businesses across the world.
“2021 came roaring back and we had a very good year,” Brady said. “2022, which we just wrapped up, was our best year ever and most profitable year ever.
Larson said Brady will go above and beyond for his customers. He’s even made personal deliveries of merchandise and photo finishing when customers were in a bind.
“The amount of hours the man worked were ridiculous,” she said. “He was always there.”
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Young, the owner of Mindy Joy Photography, said she appreciates Camera Craft’s rental service and how Brady helped up-and-coming photographers learn the trade through various classes. She hopes to see a buyer take over the business.
“If I didn’t have four kids I would do it,” she said. “It’s irreplaceable. I think it’s integral as a part of the community.”
She said Brady and his staff would often be in the shop sitting down with a customer to walk them through using whatever system captured their interest.
“I always thought that was so wonderful and so courteous of them to do that because that’s not something you’re going to get at one of the big box stores,” she said.
Laura Townsend can attest to that. She came to Camera Craft as a customer from Crystal Lake after a professional photographer had recommended it to her. The photography hobbyist was looking for a mirrorless camera for herself and a DSLR for her 20-year-old niece.
She said Brady spent at least an hour with each of them, then he was responsive to a multitude of follow-up emails and calls after she bought her Canon RP in November.
“I feel good about putting my money into merchandise at Camera Craft because I know I’m going to get good customer service,” she said. “I’m sorry that he’s going to be retiring, and I sure hope someone else can step in.”
Customer service like what Townsend received is exactly why Camera Craft has been successful, said Brian Thomas, who has run his own photography business for 32 years.
“They will literally hold your hand. They want you to succeed with your new purchase,” said Thomas, who also briefly worked at Camera Craft about 35 years ago. “They’re just good people. Good, honest people, and I think that’s why they’ve had so many years of success.”
A snapshot of history
Bob Brady started working at Camera Craft in 1956, about a week before Tom was born. He bought the business in 1966 and ran it until he sold it to his son.
Camera Craft was previously located at 114 W. State St. in downtown, then 311 W. State St. and 116 S. Church St. before moving to the Edgebrook shopping center, where it filled what is now Evolve Dance Co. The store spent 37 years at Edgebrook before moving to North Perryville Road in April 2011.
“I’ll miss customers, many who have become dear friends,” Brady said. “I’ve enjoyed working with them and being a part of their life and part of their history and helping them to preserve memories that they’ve captured.”
He also gave credit for Camera Craft’s longevity to the numerous employees who have worked there over the years.
“Camera Craft has enjoyed an excellent reputation in our community for nearly 100 years, and it is due to a long list of dedicated team members over the years who are passionate about photography and sharing their expertise with our customers,” he said.
Brady said he got his first camera when he was 8 years old, and he remembers having to stand on a step stool to watch film develop in his house.
“We had a home darkroom. I can remember standing on a little step stool, next to my dad, looking up over the counter as the pictures would appear in the developing tray,” he said. “It was like magic and I loved it.”
Photography will remain an integral part of his life, but now as a hobby and a passion rather than a business.
“I’m looking forward to moving back behind the camera from behind the counter, and returning back to my roots and what got me started capturing moments in time in the first place,” he said. “The love of photography.”
Fast facts | Camera Craft for sale
Where: 3801 N. Perryville Road, Rockford
On the web: cameracraftinc.com
Contact: email@example.com or 815-877-FOTO (3686)
About: “Camera Craft is for sale, and if you love photography and people and would enjoy helping others with their photo needs, this may be the perfect opportunity to take the reins of a very successful, locally owned camera store and continue its growth into the future.” — Tom Brady
This article is by Kevin Haas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @KevinMHaas or Instagram @thekevinhaas