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Photo Finish: Three longtime associates are retiring together from Bedford Camera

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Sometimes, Randy Smith, Jim Wygant and Mary Lou Brotherhood get to thinking that maybe photography is a younger person’s game. But then a customer comes into their workplace with an older-model camera, and they’re reminded of the valuable perspectives they bring to the table.

The trio, longtime Bedford Camera and Video Inc. staffers, will retire soon – husband and wife sales associates Wygant and Brotherhood on April 1 and store manager Smith in mid-June. With them, they will take a collective 119 years of experience out the door of one of Springfield’s few camera shops.

Photography has changed immeasurably since the three began – 36 years ago for Smith, 38 for Wygant and 45 for Brotherhood. When they started, they dealt mostly in single-lens reflex cameras, all of which used film. Photographers took care of their own apertures, shutter speeds and focus settings, and instead of Photoshop, they would retreat to dark rooms to spot, dodge and burn their way to a polished finished product.

Whereas photographers now can attempt hundreds of shots to find one that works, they note film required a sort of exercise in faith – a handful of calculated, carefully considered shots that went straight to film, made out of silver and other minerals and generally expensive.

“When the industry went from film to digital in the late ’90s, it scared us all,” Smith recalls. “All we knew was film. This was all new terminology.”

All three continue to enjoy shooting on film as a hobby – a bit of a busman’s holiday, but they also benefit from the fact Bedford offers some of the only film developing in the region.

Smith likes to photograph wildlife and landscape, as well as his granddaughters, on a Sony camera. Wygant, a lifelong Nikon user, enjoys shooting scenery, especially Western landscapes. And his traveling companion, Brotherhood, likes shooting scenery, too, but especially loves macrophotography. Some of her closeups of insects and flowers are on display in a collage at the front of the store.

The future retirees say they will most miss the customers – “A handful of them,” Wygand said, “regulars that have been coming here a long time.”

He added he will not miss working on Saturdays or waking early for work.

Brotherhood said she’ll miss coworkers as well as customers.

“I know their dog’s name by the time a customer leaves,” she said. “I love listening to their stories.”

Smith enjoys lending a hand and mentoring beginning photographers.

“I always just enjoyed what we do,” he said. “I like to help people get good pictures and be good photographers. We care about our customers – customer service has never been a problem with us.”

This shared trait of the trio appears to be well established. In a 2000 Springfield Business Journal article, Lawrence Photo & Video, the original camera shop that was founded in 1973 and then bought by Bedford in 2015, owners Mary Lou and Charles Hoag have nothing but praise for their workers.

“We have the most professional staff,” Mary Lou Hoag (not to be confused with the retiring Mary Lou Brotherhood) is quoted as saying. “Our staff is what makes us competitive. The people who work here are career people who take pride in what they do. They do a lot of little things that bring in new customers and make our long-time customers want to come back.”

The article also notes sales staff members were trained in a variety of photographic specialties to offer in-depth help and expertise customers needed when buying camera or video equipment and supplies.

Springdale, Arkansas-based Bedford Camera and Video was started in 1974 and now has six locations in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, as well as a brisk online sales presence, according to Smith. The Bedford family continues to run the business and has bucked industry trends. Research firm IBIS World reported in 2021 that brick-and-mortar camera stores had been declining considerably in the past five years, with 1,180 businesses remaining nationwide. 

David Strong is a Bedford Camera customer and a professional photographer who shot weddings and roller derby before the pandemic, but who has taken to shooting hawks and eagles since then. He recently bought a camera from the store. He said it came onto the market Oct. 28 and just started shipping at Christmas. It took him four months to receive his camera, and he was excited to get the call from Smith to tell him it had come in.

At Strong’s request, Smith had opened the box and removed the camera’s battery, which takes four hours to charge and is supposed to be charged completely before its first use.

“That’s something they’re not required to do, but he did,” Strong said. “Randy had my battery fully charged, and I got to play with my camera on the way home.

“We’re gonna miss ’em. It’s their personalities – their eagerness to help. I have never went in there and got snapped at or felt like I didn’t know what I was doing, and I’ve been dealing in there probably 10-15 years.”

Smith said he’ll particularly miss seeing Wygant and Brotherhood on a daily basis.

“I may start hanging out at their house a little bit,” he said, adding they used to be next-door neighbors. “I’ll miss seeing these guys every day. Same for the customers. It’s going to be a weird change.”

Smith added he won’t miss working Black Friday for 36 years straight.

“I’m going to enjoy that holiday season a whole lot more,” he said.

While the three longest-serving employees are retiring, not all store knowledge will be lost. Assistant manager Rick Orrell has been by Smith’s side for 20 years and is poised to take over as manager, and Kent Miller, the lab manager who has been employed at Bedford his whole working life. There are nine full-time employees in all.

Some younger workers haven’t been in the store quite so long, but Smith knows they’ve been well trained.

“The hard part for them is going to be knowing the old cameras,” he said. “We know how to deal with that. They didn’t grow up in the age of the old film cameras.”

Springfield is big on photography, to hear the professionals tell it.

“There’s a lot of it,” said Wygant. “Bird photography is a big thing down here – eagles, hawks. A lot of customers are coming in trying to do that kind of thing. At Lake Springfield on any given day, you’re going to see people who are somewhat regular customers.”

And while most of those customers are shooting digitally, some of them remember the old way, or they’re trying it for the first time.

“It’s like vinyl. It’s coming back,” said Brotherhood.


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