IF THERE’S one thing that John Greenwood has learned from the Covid-19 lockdown, it’s that he doesn’t fancy retiring anytime soon!
The 72-year-old owner and managing director of Bradford Camera Exchange (BCE) – one of the city’s longest established independent retailers – says the enforced closure has made him determined to keep on working.
“It was a relief to get back,” he says. “You can only carry on so long at home, can’t you? It made me think that there’s not too much mileage in retiring. You’re sitting there wondering what to do next week whereas in business you never stop. We’re always busy.”
Undoubtedly, it will come as a relief to his army of loyal customers, too.
The levels of expertise and knowledge built up by Bradford BID’s latest Trader of the Week, over 84 years in business in the city, are a rare find indeed. And they explain why customers from across the UK beat a path to BCE’s North Parade door for help, advice and specialist photography-related services of the type that too few businesses can offer these days.
What’s even more remarkable is that the accumulated experience, spanning more than eight decades and dating back to the days of black-and-white-only plate cameras, is still growing daily.
“There’s such a lot to this business because you’re expected to know about all the latest hi-tech goods that are out now but then people come in with a camera that might be 50, 60, or 70 years old and want to know all about it,” says John.
The business name of Bradford Camera Exchange has remained unchanged since 1936, when it was founded by John’s father, Alfred, and his partner, Joe Bruce.
“My father was originally in the wool trade but he was a very good photographer, an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society and president of the Bradford Photographic Society many times,” says John. “In those days it was a combination of your interest as a hobby combined with a business, so that’s how they kicked off.”
Interestingly, the core of the business has remained unchanged since that date: “They were doing the same thing then as we are now. I have adverts going right back to the beginning and they are offering exactly the same sort of service as we do now which is basically dealing in new goods, taking things in part exchange, buying for cash, and selling on commission.”
And the advertisements tell their own tale; John’s dad, who died when he was just 12, obviously fancied himself as a bit of a poet and he used to create clever little rhymes to attract customers. Competition for business was fierce.
“When I first started in 1963, at the age of 15, there must have been a minimum of 12 photographic outlets in Bradford,” recalls John. “There were independent dealers like Eric’s, three department stores with photographic counters – Sunwin House, Brown Muffs and Busby’s – photographic chemists like Rimmingtons and Hazlehursts with proper photographic departments and various other camera shops.
“They’ve all gone and now there’s just us.”
BCE was originally based in the now long-gone Victoria Square opposite the Alhambra Theatre near the War Memorial and the Queen Victoria statue.
“We moved to North Parade in 1964 because we got thrown out of our premises when they demolished all that in the early ‘60s,” says John. “We were across the road at 24 North Parade from 1964 to 1987 when we purchased these premises – at number 19 – and had them refitted.
“We wanted to get into processing and the fact that we had the dual entry – on Northgate – on a different level, almost like two shops, made it very attractive for that purpose.”
The business has been a tale of two shops ever since, with the BCE PhotoLab entrance in Northgate doing a roaring trade with its ultra-competitive prices and an incredible range of processing services.
John says: “We scan films, slides, cine to video, cine to DVD, VHS and 8mm to DVD. Many people like to archive negatives and slides and some bring in thousands.
“We had a fairly big investment in the lab nearly two years ago to completely re-equip it but it’s proved to be a good thing and we’ve picked up lots of business from all over the country.
“There are an awful lot of people finding old films in the back of a cupboard or drawer and they send these in and sometimes it’s astonishing what they get out of them. For them it’s a great surprise because they’re seeing pictures of family members they haven’t seen for donkey’s years.”
In fact, the growth in the analogue side of the business – film as opposed to digital – is a story of success across BCE’s whole range of services and products, despite them dealing in some of the most up-to-date photographic technology and being an authorised Pentax specialist.
“There’s an awful lot of fun in analogue photography and I’m pleased to say there seems to be a very big revival of interest in it,” he says. “You’re getting a lot of interest from a new generation, like students – for them it’s all new because they’ve been born in the digital age. Developing a film in solutions and watching it come up in a darkroom is all new to them.
“Then you get people who are nostalgic and remember it years ago and want to go back to those times again and buy a film camera. Digital is obviously the main thing but analogue is getting really quite popular again.”
BCE sells a huge range of second-hand cameras, lenses and accessories which John thinks is probably the biggest in the north of England.
“We have one or two people who go out and source it for us,” he says. “And Lisa Fell, who looks after the second-hand equipment has huge knowledge of everything photographic and makes sure there are no problems before items get to the window. I think buying a second-hand one off us is as safe as buying a new one anywhere else.
“We also do a lot servicing. We have a lot of mechanics who work on behalf of the company, specialist people who deal with the traditional, classic type cameras. What you find is that a lot of the big repair companies are not too keen on handling the older things partially because they perhaps don’t have that expertise and partially because the spare parts might not be readily available. We’re very fortunate to have such a specialist because we keep him very busy!”
BCE won the T&A Retailer of the Year Award at the end of last year and talking to John about his passion for providing a service to his loyal local customers, it’s easy to see why.
“We’ve offered a really personal service for the last 84 years to the people of Bradford and over that time we’ve been able to help an awful lot of people with anything to do their interest in photography,” he says. “And we’re still able to do that. There are obviously today some people who think the only way to buy things is to tap a mouse on their computer but they are missing the personal experience of someone who is interested in the same sort of thing as them, the advice they could have got, and the interesting tips and the like that we could have passed on.
“There’s a lot to be said for independent businesses like ourselves remaining viable so that people can take advantage of all that knowledge.
“Up to now we’ve always been able to sell everything through the shop and I do rather like the idea that you’re dealing face to face with people. And I like the thought that the bargains we offer are enjoyed by local people – if we start selling our cameras on the internet to all over the country then we’ll never see these people and of course we won’t build up the same relationship.
“I’m quite keen to try to maintain the personal contact. We have lots of loyal customers, people who have been using us for years who keep coming back because they know they will get the same personal advice and service.
“I think that’s why a lot of people come to see us because we can offer the expertise and knowledge and built up that relationship and trust – and they know they’ll get a good deal.”
Bradford Camera Exchange and BCE PhotoLab, 19 North Parade and 17 Northgate, Bradford. Tel (01274) 729144. Website: bcephotolab.com ; Email: email@example.com; Facebook @BCEPhotoLab.