In 2001 the owner of Blue Moon Camera and Machine bucked a tech trend — and has since built a global business.
Walking into Blue Moon Camera and Machine feels, at first, like a trip back in time. The store opened in 2001 in Portland’s St. Johns neighborhood and has famously never sold a digital camera. With its glass cases full of vintage camera equipment and staff operating film-processing machines, Blue Moon looks just like the old-fashioned downtown camera shops that were shuttering when Shivery set up shop. (And while the shop primarily sells film cameras and processes film, there’s even a row of refurbished typewriters for sale behind the photo lab.)
Focusing on film was a deliberate strategy, he says: He didn’t believe film photography would disappear entirely, and he wanted to plant a flag. It’s paid off, he says, as film photography is experiencing something of a renaissance, in Portland and elsewhere.
And while the commitment to analog technology and face-to-face customer service is real, it’s also, Shivery admits, not the whole story. In recent years, the store has quietly expanded its physical footprint into an adjacent building that once housed a bowling alley, and it is now a global company, offering camera sales and film processing to e-commerce customers all over the world. He wants to keep both parts of the business intact, he says, and he wants it to be around forever: He’s begun the process of transitioning to an employee stock ownership program, so his employees (of which there are currently 24) can take the reins when he retires.
Shivery spoke to Oregon Business about his company’s focus and his plans for the future. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
You’ve said that your shopping demographic is fairly young. Has that always been the case?
In 2001 I figured that all the old-timers would be sticking with us. But they were the first people who went over [to digital]. What we find are the young people who come in say, “I want my first real camera.” I can sell them a solid 50-year-old camera with a year warranty, and I do every day — for half the price that they would pay for a phone — and they can own that camera forever, can engage in a different process and be able to access those images in decades. I think that that’s really important. We don’t ever tell people to not shoot digital, right? We’re not anti-digital, we’re just very pro-film.
Because of our production services, because we run traditional black and white darkrooms and so forth, we get a lot of work that’s very, very old. We worked with a church that gave us a big stack of 5-by-7 glass plates. When you get a roll of film that somebody found in Grandma’s drawer and never got processed, we have a process for it. We can recover images from that. I love that stuff.
You’ve also expanded into e-commerce. So you’re now a national business.
We’re international. About 40% of the trade’s leaving the building now. We pack and ship a lot every day.
COVID has been really, really tough for retail, broadly, but it seems like it’s been harder for the bigger stores that can’t compete with Amazon — it’s Walmarts that are closing.
We [small retailers] have more to lose, right? When Walmart closes a store, it doesn’t impact them as a company. My observation on the pandemic was you didn’t just lose your job, you lost your industry — or you did kind of well. There wasn’t a lot in between. I’m very grateful for our supportive customer base — our religiously supportive customer base. The way that we stayed open is we took the entire sales floor and we just moved outside. We were outside for 15 months, in the heat of summer and in the cold of winter. We just did everything that we do in the building on the sidewalk, with very dedicated staff, with people who were not going to let this business go down — and a very dedicated clientele of followers who were still showing up and waiting in line down the block, waiting to come to our storefront.
What would your advice be to somebody wanting to get into retail in this climate?
I think people need to be able to evaluate what they want to do and where they want to do it, and why they want to do it. I knew that this is what I wanted to do largely because I saw an industry that was moving in a different direction than I wanted to see it move in. In the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of upstarts out there getting like, “Oh, we’re going to be your film revolution headquarters,” but back in the day, they weren’t there. They’re just getting excited about it now. We’ve got 20 years of infrastructure behind us, and a lot of people who have been doing this since before digital cameras. We thrive in Portland because Portland has a cultural resonance with vintage and with analog and with permanence. It’s not something that would work in many other places.
Probably the most important question is, “What do you want?” There is no way to start any business of any kind without bracing yourself or hanging on by your fingernails for the first couple of years. Because it’s not going to be easy. I think building something can be real important for people — but sometimes people just want to go to a job and want to be able to do something else with their life. When you’re starting a business, I think, of any kind, that’s what you’re doing with your life. Make up your mind that that’s what you’re doing, because it will eclipse everything else.
What advice do you give customers coming in for their first real camera? How do you guide them if they say, “I’ve only ever taken pictures with my phone”?
We operate almost like an adoption company more than a sales company. We’re trying to make sure we get the right piece of equipment into the right person’s hands. I will ask some preliminary questions to get a sense of what’s being attempted, and then pull out four or five relevant pieces of equipment. Then we start talking about ergonomics: If you had these three cameras laying on the kitchen counter and you were running out the back door, which one would you grab? Which one feels best in your hand?
Then we can start talking about features, and then we can start talking about brand, and then we can start talking about budget and so forth. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is ergonomics.
Then we have the flip side, which is people coming in with very specific requests. Our whole job is translating the technical nature of this incredibly broad field down into whatever that person’s vision is, understanding that every single person who walks in the door is going to have a dramatically different idea about what they want to do. But film photography is an incredibly mature technology. There’s something there for everybody.
What’s your vision for five years in the future?
I want the same thing that I’ve always wanted: I want to be the international hub for analog photography, everywhere, and I want to be the quirky little neighborhood camera store. I like shaking people’s hands and leaning on the counter and talking to them. I feel so much better when I can put something in somebody’s hands and know they’re leaving with the right piece of equipment for them.
We have now sold pieces of equipment multiple times because we’ve been open so long, and we sell a lot of stuff on consignment. So we’ll have sold it to somebody who will use it for five or six years and then bring it back and we refurbish it again and then we sell it again. We’ve been noting an uptick in the number of things that are passing through the system for the second and third time. But way more important — and way cooler — is people bringing in teenagers, because this is where they pay money to buy their first camera or their first typewriter.
Who’s your competition?
We don’t have anyone who we are directly competitive with. There’s a good number of stores out there that sell camera equipment. There’s a good number of photo-processing labs out there. There’s nobody out there that’s doing both of those things at the same time. We’re really interested in being the one-stop shop. We’re selling you a camera so that you know when you’re finished with your first roll, when you come back, we process the film and scan it or we print it. And then we go over the images, so that when all your stuff looks perfect, and it’s exactly the way you want it, great. When you get an unexpected result, that’s where we come in. We’re going to help translate the technical end. You wanted that to be brighter or darker, more contrast, whatever: “This exposure didn’t work because of this.” If all we did was sell cameras or print pictures, that would be a much different thing.