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Store Manager Saves Vintage-Inspired Camera Shop from Closing

By Alisa Hauser | January 16, 2014 10:26am | Updated on January 16, 2014 10:28am
 The Lomography Embassy Store, 1422 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Wicker Park.
Lomography Embassy Store
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WICKER PARK —  When the manager of a vintage-inspired camera shop found out that the international company that owned it was planning to pull the plug, she decided to find a way for the store to stay open.

She took it over.

Hearing about plans to close the Lomography Embassy Store, 1422 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Wicker Park, manager Piper Robbins recalled, "I had a panic attack, freaked out."

A manufacturer of analog cameras, film and accessories, Lomography opened in Wicker Park in September 2012 and was initially called the Lomography Gallery Store.

Robbins, 27, had relocated from New York City to Chicago to launch the store, which sells several dozen models of reissued vintage cameras, such as the mini Diana, which was originally manufactured in the 1960s and given away as a novelty at raffles, carnivals and through mail order slips in cereal boxes.

 Lomography Embassy Store, 1422 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Wicker Park.
Lomography Embassy Store, 1422 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Wicker Park.
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DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser

Effective Wednesday, the new name, with the use of "embassy," reflects that the Wicker Park shop is now a private entity and not part of Lomography's gallery stores, said Christian Polt, general manager of U.S. operations for the Vienna, Austria- based company.

"Because of special circumstances they offered [the store] to me," Robbins said, adding that "the whole thing is really exciting, unexpected."

Founded by a group of friends in 1992, Lomography is, according to its website, “a magazine, a shop and a community dedicated to analog photography.”

Analog cameras typically use film, as opposed to the digital cameras more popular today. Fans of analog say the cameras produce crisper photos.

Robbins opened the store Sept. 21, 2012, and said she found out exactly one year and one week later of the plan to close it.

"It was profitable but not enough for it to be run by a big company," said Robbins.

Robbins said she saw "so much opportunity for the store." She is working on a new logo that will be specific to Chicago photographers and plans to stock the shop with new merchandise like T-shirts, picture frames, bags and other accessories.

"It's kind of like my baby, even though it wasn't initially mine," she said of the store. "I literally found the space, built it out, it seemed like such a waste [to close it]."

Robbins' passion to keep the store open stems from her love of photography, especially analog, which she calls "a lost art form."

"With analog photos it's a craft that needs to be learned," she said. "With digital cameras it's pushing a button."

A display at the Wicker Park store called the "Lomo wall" showcases more than 4,000 photos given to the store by analog photographers, some of whom refer to themselves as "lomographers."

Polt, the corporate general manager, said that the change in ownership was sparked by the Lomography group deciding "to focus more on bringing awesome products to market rather than building a system of shops."

"We want to go into more of a franchise system with embassy stores and we're super happy that Piper took over Chicago. It's a good fit for her," Polt said of Robbins.

The first of its kind in the United States, the new embassy store joins other Lomography embassies in Madrid, Barcelona, Moscow and Portugal.

Last fall, Lomography shuttered three other U.S. stores. The only remaining retail shops in the United States are Wicker Park and New York City, Polt said.

"We are restructuring and going back to a more product-oriented company," Polt said.

Though Robbins had to foot the $700 bill to become an Limited Liability Corporation, she is not required to pay any franchising fees to Lomography, which is allowing her to keep all of the furnishings in the shop.

Additionally, Lomography will market Robbin's embassy store on its website and sell its cameras and merchandise to Robbins through a wholesale arrangement.

For those interested in learning how to use an analog camera, Robbins is planning an Intro to Lomography and Winter Photo Walk Workshop at 2 p.m. Sunday.

Lomography Embassy Store, 1422 N. Milwaukee Ave. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Phone: 872-206-2253.