Central Camera Co. stays focused

At 74 years old, being the third-generation owner of Central Camera Co. is the only job Albert Donald Flesch—Don to his customers—has ever known. When he watched his 123-year-old store burn down amidst the civil unrest that swept the city in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, he had one reaction: “We’re going to rebuild it and make it just as good or better.”

On the evening of May 30, 2020, the pandemic raged on without an end in sight. Confrontations between police and demonstrators had escalated, and the Loop became the scene of riots and looting. Central Camera Co. wasn’t spared. Don perched on a metal fence wrapped around a patch of grass across the street from Central Camera, near the entrance of DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media, and turned on the flash of his camera. He took pictures of the scene unfolding before him until the roll of film ran out. He reached into his pocket for his phone to take a few more, only to find that its battery ran out because of the countless calls he’d received earlier about a break-in at his store while he was at his home in suburban Skokie. So he did the only thing he could do that night. He sat and watched.

Don looked on as people smashed the storefront windows and walked out with bags of valuable inventory that generations of his family had dedicated their lives to collecting and selling. He watched as black smoke billowed through the front door. And he watched as everything but the store’s vintage neon sign that read “Since 1899” in big bold neon letters went up in flames.

But Don says that as thousands of people marched through the Loop, he wasn’t angry with the demonstrators or what happened to his store. He was just upset about what enraged them in the first place: George Floyd’s murder.

When the fire trucks arrived, more than two dozen firefighters worked for hours to extinguish the blaze. In a corner of the store’s shattered storefront window, Don saw the first camera his grandfather had ever sold was still on display, flipped over on its back. It was an antique Kodak folding camera, sent back to the store years later in a box with a note from a customer who explained that his father had bought the camera for him from Don’s grandfather. As Don inched closer, a fireman warned him to keep away. Breathing in the smoke was dangerous, and the fire was still burning. He needed to create a diversion to reach in and grab it. “I said, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ And [the firefighter] turned and looked up, and I grabbed it and stuffed it under my armpit,” Don recalled, laughing at the success of his distraction.

Don snuck in every day during the week after the fire to search for family belongings and items that would help the business bounce back, such as the phone books. The floors were destroyed, the walls blackened, and the tiles in the back office so damaged that a misstep would send someone slipping through them. He searched unsuccessfully for the diary his grandfather, Albert Flesch, who founded the store, carried with him when he immigrated from Hungary to Chicago at only 13 years old. Though Don had the diary translated, copied, and distributed to the rest of the family years before, the original copy was lost in the fire.

Two years after the fire, Don stands in the store’s original location, wearing his signature black beanie, a camera perpetually hanging from his neck. Renovations aren’t completed yet, but he reopened the store out of necessity. It’s a clean slate: a white-walled warehouse that is starkly different from the crammed, vibrant time capsule of a store that once was. He glazes over some variation of the events that unfolded to curious customers several times a day, offering glimpses of the devastation the store endured. Days after the fire, the staff set up two tables on the sidewalk and talked with customers. They relocated to a temporary spot next door in November 2020. The store set up a GoFundMe campaign for the repairs and raised about $35,000 in the first hour. “Although this is a tough time for the store, it doesn’t compare to the loss of George Floyd’s life and the countless other Black lives lost,” the page says.

Central Camera Co. is from 10 AM to 2 PM Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Carolina Sanchez

Don’s grandfather and Central Camera Co.’s founder Albert Flesch grew up in the small town of Polgár in eastern Hungary. Don described it akin to Fiddler on the Roof, a movie adaptation of a Broadway musical about life among the small Jewish communities set in the Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia at the turn of the 20th century. Albert left his native Hungary after his bar mitzvah to flee forced conscription in the army. He walked to Venice, Italy, and embarked on a voyage to Ellis Island. Writing in Hungarian, Albert documented his trip and arrival to New York, where he took a train to Chicago and lived with a relative.

Years later, Albert started his career at the camera department of Siegel-Cooper, a discount department store on State Street in the Loop. Upon this introduction to the world of photography, Albert opened Central Camera Co. in 1899. As business expanded, he relocated twice, permanently settling at the store’s present location on 230 S. Wabash in 1929. “What is State Street and Madison Street to Chicago? It’s the double zero, it’s the central part of Chicago. So I think that’s where the name came from,” Don says, referring to the street location of the department store his grandfather was first introduced to cameras at. “I don’t know where he learned it. Diary doesn’t say it.”

Albert died of a heart attack in 1933 at 56 years old, 15 years before Don was born. Although Don never met him, his memory was kept alive through his journal and by his two sons, Don’s father and uncle, who took over. Don helped out in the store as a schoolboy in the 1950s and then started working there full-time in 1968, when he was 20 years old.

The staff referred to each Flesch family member by their initials to allow for quicker communication through the paging system. When Don’s father says he wanted to hear “A.F.” for Albert Flesch over the pager again, Don decided to go by that. His nickname eventually made its way back—mostly because Don rhymes with his twin brother’s name Ron—but, to this day, he still signs every document with a capital “A” and two lines coming out of one side to make the “F.”

Plastered to one of the store’s otherwise bare walls is a blown-up photograph of what it once looked like. Stacks of inventory filled shelves that reached a midway point at the double ceilings, and thousands of cameras sat in lit-up display cabinets that lined either side of the store. Every inch of the space was crammed with something from the past. “The store was a historical living museum,” Don says, affirming his determination to rebuild it in the same way. He plans to once again display the first camera the store ever sold and hang portraits and photographs of his grandfather, father, and uncle at the store.

As its staff work to get the store back on its feet, Central Camera Co. is bringing in two in-house processing machines for affordable same-day development of 35mm and 120mm color and black-and-white film, as well as photo scanning. There is never a dull moment at the store, which is open from 10 AM to 2 PM Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. If it’s not the customers, young and old, revolving in and out, it’s the telephone that never seems to stop ringing, or the staff chatting, laughing, and working. “That’s Al and his grandson,” Don says, greeting an older man and a teenager with two big bear hugs as they walk through the large glass double door entrance. Don asks them about a recent trip they had and how their family is doing.

Moments like these are not uncommon. Don often remembers which customer had what problem the last time they came in.

The renovated store is not yet as jam-packed with inventory as it once was, but there’s no shortage of cameras.

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