ELYRIA — The first time Howard Foxman walked around downtown Elyria, he was a transplant from the Youngstown area who wanted to know where he could buy a good camera.
As he shuffled along the sidewalk of the then-bustling downtown retail district, he was pointed in the direction of Loomis Book and Office Supply Store. It was the only place in town to buy a camera since 1945, when Ed Prenkee bought the store from Ford Loomis.
Foxman said before long he decided to buy the business as a camera and film store. He wasn’t much of a camera bug but was a good businessman and saw the store as a good investment. With that one decision, Loomis Camera — a downtown Elyria institution — was born.
“Oh yeah, I’m the only one here now,” said Foxman, a 91-year-old man who firmly believes that if he stops working and moving, he will simply deteriorate and die. “Who would buy a camera shop now? But I did then because downtown was booming. There was foot traffic, and everyone came down here.”
Little has changed inside Loomis Camera over the years.
Foxman started out on Middle Avenue in 1950 and in 1957 he purchased the building where the store is. Inside, the decor includes shelves upon shelves of cameras, equipment and dark room supplies.
There is red-and-orange worn carpet and a well-used green recliner in the corner next to an older model yellow refrigerator. All serve as examples of a place with a lot of history.
But in the coming weeks — Foxman estimates at least a month to six weeks — Loomis Camera itself will be history.
The oldest store in continuous operation in downtown Elyria with its original owner is closing up shop, and Foxman is doing something he never thought he would do.
“I never thought about retiring — ever,” Foxman said. “When people ask me when I’m going to retire, I always said, ‘What for? What am I going to do?’ I like coming to work every day.”
Yet, circumstances are forcing him to do just that. Earlier this year, a fire in the neighboring Robinson building resulted in smoke damage to Foxman’s business as well as to the building, which is now owned by local businessman Andy Culberson.
Foxman said his insurance company has settled with him for the business, but Culberson’s insurance company would like to have the business move for at least a month so work can be done on the building.
“But at 91, I’m not going to do it,” Foxman said. “I’m not strong enough to do that. So, I’m just going to close the store.”
‘A tremendous time’
The news already had started to spread Monday when customers and well-wishers came into the store to browse, shop or say goodbye.
“I’m going to miss coming in here to buy stuff, look around or just shoot the bull,” said customer Bill Keaton as he walked out with several items to continue his growing photography hobby.
Keaton is the kind of customer Foxman loves. He loves to shoot pictures using a multitude of cameras and is looking for quality over price.
“The best thing you can do for a business is have a going out of business sale,” laughed longtime Loomis employee Tom Peters. “We should have done this a long time ago, at least once or twice.”
Peters has been with the store since 1973. Foxman placed a notice with a local employment agency for a knowledgeable sales associate, and Peters is who he got.
“Oh, he knows his cameras,” Foxman said.
“Not that much,” Peters added. “But I know enough to talk to people about what they want to buy and explain to them how they work. I guess you can say in that regard Howard and I are the yin-and-yang of this store. He is a businessman first.”
Foxman doesn’t have a problem with that title. He said every decision he has made in the past 62 years has been about furthering the business. His best years he made upwards of $1 million a year. It’s not surprising that Foxman sums up his time in downtown Elyria in one word: tremendous.
“When I first moved to Elyria, on the weekends the sidewalks were so filled with people you had to walk on the curb just to get by,” he said. “All the stores were rented. There were ladies’ shops, bakeries, men’s shops, jewelry stores and a butcher shop.”
In the beginning, the secret to his success was to stock what the customer wanted. Then, Mom and Pop shops like his began taking hits with the creation of big-box stores likes Kmart, Walmart and Best Buy.
But by selling film at close to cost, Foxman kept the doors open. When digital cameras came to market, Foxman began selling more than 40 different models at competitive prices and with photography lessons to customers to remain relevant in a changing market.
And, when the city of Elyria tried with changes to its building code to force the removal of Foxman’s best piece of advertisement — the Loomis Camera sign that has been above the door for decades, Foxman fought City Hall instead of accepting defeat.
“That sign cost a lot of money, and everyone knew where my store was because of it,” he said. “So yeah, I was going to keep fighting them as long as it took. I even had 2,000 signatures on a petition, and I was going to take it to the ballot if it came to it.”
After all the years he has had a shop in Elyria, Foxman has some great stories to tell.
The race riots of the 1970s were a dangerous time, Foxman remembers. He was heading to Europe with his wife when the tension escalated. He called home, he said, to check on his store, hoping everything would be OK. Luckily, he said, nothing happened to the shop.
Another incident looked like a scene from a movie right in front of Foxman’s store.
A bank robber in a car led police on a chase down Middle Avenue, hit two cars, jumped a curb near the store and hit a pedestrian. The impact threw the woman through Foxman’s window, and for several minutes everyone thought she was dead. She survived the crash, and police eventually caught up to the fleeing suspect, but not before Foxman said he received the scare of his lifetime.
“Those cops came right into the store with their guns drawn, and I about peed my pants,” he said.
Missing the camera man
From the saga to keep his sign to his longevity in downtown Elyria, Foxman represents a kind of business savvy that will be missed for years to come.
“He is a staple in our business community,” said Tamela Grubb, executive director of Main Street Elyria. “Small businesses touch the community so much because they get to know the people, and he is a gleaming example of what it means to be a small business owner. His reputation, knowledge and involvement in the community are what have sustained him over the years.”
Grubb said she will always remember Foxman for his unbridled opinions and mess of white hair that seemed to have a mind of its own.
“He is just such a unique and intelligent individual that you can’t help respect him,” he said.
Mayor Holly Brinda said the city will work with the building owner to bring in another business in the space, even though Loomis Camera is irreplaceable.
“It will certainly leave a hole in downtown Elyria,” she said. “Nothing is going to take the place of Loomis Camera.”
Brinda said she wishes Foxman well and hopes he finds joy in his retirement.
Foxman has other plans.
“I’ll just be on eBay,” he said. “We started doing more online business through eBay a few years back and so far we have had between 3,000 and 4,000 sales. I think I will just do more of that. It will need a lot of my attention so I’m still going to wake up at 5 a.m. every day, even Sunday.”
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or email@example.com.