In conversation with: Photoreal, Brooklyn, New York
I’m fairly new to film. Actually, I should say I’m fairly new to photography in general. Earlier this year, I happened upon one of my father-in-law’s SLR’s stashed in the closet. I read up on exposure, got a hold of some film and shot a roll. I’ve never been one to carry a camera with me, but since that first roll, I hardly step out without a film camera on hand.
A big part of my experience has been the little shop down the street where I drop off my rolls. You see, Photoreal is one of the few shops that still processes film in Brooklyn and incredibly, it’s been run uninterrupted for the last 26 years.
Throughout the year, the owner of Photoreal, Jay, has been kind enough to entertain any questions I have had from film types, to color preferences, to asking about the machines he uses and generally all the things about a photo-shop-come-film-lab which I find fascinating.
Most of all, I have enjoyed hearing the stories that make up the long history of the shop. At one point, I thought why not try to record the stories and share them. So, here it is, the story of the last photoshop in my neighborhood.
On the day I came into the shop for the interview, there was a sandwich board folded up inside with a list of photo services and prices. I don’t know if Jay sees me looking at it but before I can ask, he tells me he’s been ticketed twice for it and he’s not sure why, so he’s had to bring it in. Sandwich boards are common here on this stretch of storefronts in Brooklyn.
They are used as something to catch the eye of a passerby. For Photoreal, located on the second floor in a building whose marquee reads “Remsen Graphics” and “Court Order” (the first floor deli), a sandwich board is very handy to have outside.
Jay opens by telling me “I will tell you the story.” It’s an invitation to sit down and get comfortable. He wants to start from the beginning, back to the early days of the shop…
Jae: Jay – by the way, is that your full name?
Jay: Well no. My customers started to call me Jay because Javed is hard to pronounce. I’d get asked what my name was and I would tell them Javed but then, they would just call me Jay. So, Jay Javed.
Jae: Ok, so Jay, twenty-six years ago you opened Photoreal in its original location, not too far from here in Court Street. Can you tell me a bit of your background and how you came to open a photo shop?
Jay: I wanted a small business of my own [back in the late 80s]. I started looking around and found a candy store in Bay Ridge. I was selling candy, cigarettes, newspapers and so forth. It felt like, after a while, that I was working for commission. I’d sell a newspaper or magazine and I’d get a little bit. It didn’t feel right so I started thinking about my father who was very careful and neat about the family album. It got me to thinking about family photos and how it made people feel like they were making something they could value. I thought then, why not start a photo shop?
As it happens, at around the same time two friends of mine and I were looking around Joraleman Street for a store to open an Indian restaurant. It didn’t work out but then I saw this little 80 sq foot shop on Remsen Street. I didn’t know anything about running a photo shop but I knew a couple of brands – Kodak, Fuji – so I looked through the yellow pages and started calling.
One company I was able to reach was called Agfa. I talked to them and asked about their machines, if they had something that would fit the shop and what it would cost. The first one I purchased was a printer called the 3130. With the 3130, you would look into a window and you had to go through one picture at a time and adjust the color manually.
One roll took half an hour…
It was so slow that I would tell advertisers [who would come by] that I wasn’t interested because I couldn’t take any more work!
Jae: That’s really amazing. You just cracked open the yellow pages and started calling. Did it take long to pick up the intricacies of the business?
Jay: I’ll tell you something funny – and this is true – the first week, these customers were passing my store and I remember saying to myself, God please do not let them come in. But I’ll tell you, I put my heart and soul, day and night to learn.
And there was so little room in the store. In my car, I would have to keep the bleach and developer. I used to have an account with the transit authority. The guy once said to me, “you know what, the biggest transit authority in the world and the smallest store and you have our business!”
Eventually [in 2003] I changed the developer machine to a Noritsu but kept the printer with Agfa – the D-Lab1. I remember the salesman that sold me the D-Lab1. As soon as he sold me the machine, he disappeared and soon thereafter, Agfa went out of business.
Jae: I know there was at one time a number of photo shops around here. But I get the sense from listening to you talk about those days that there was enough business to go around and you always had your regulars. Was it clear at the time  that the industry was changing and what were those subsequent years like for you?
Jay: Yes, and all of those labs are gone now. There used to be five right around here and the last store was down in Degraw Street. That closed in 2006. We bought their black and white machine.
And for me, it all seemed to happen at once. My worker got married and left and then the owner of the building told me they weren’t renewing the lease so they could build condos. I had these machines to pay off and I was begging people to give me a spot. I was lucky. I ran into one of the brothers who run Remsen Graphic and they, like angels, offered me a spot in their store.
But it was difficult; like if you don’t process 10-12 rolls a day, the chemistry goes bad. But I never threw away a machine.
Jae: It can’t have been easy and just amazing this day and age, in this city, for the shop to have weathered through those difficult times. How have you managed when no one else here did?
Jay: I never thought I could be here for 26 years. But I believe in sharing profits with customers. For me, it’s a family business [more so] because all of the film people are gone. And I’ve been blessed with good, dedicated workers.
I feel blessed to have Boris here now – because in business you need at least one more like you who cares. We share the same mindset. Success in life is not about money. It’s about happiness and satisfaction in what you do.
Jae: I know from speaking with you in the past, maintenance of the machines is a big deal and not easy with fewer and fewer options available. You’ve had to be resourceful to keep the machines running.
Jay: Part of it is keeping relationships with technicians you know. And Boris has picked up how to fix as well. You find ways to get around the lack of servicing options. You can go to Agfa now but they charge four times more. Just to come in it’s $350 but we always find a way to solve the problem. We’ve learned from technicians and we can source parts on the internet.
Here is an example for the Agfa printer (see above). This is the electric heater. It keeps the temperature at 38 degrees centigrade to control the color process. Boris found an equivalent online at a good price that works and fits. It would have cost $800 from Agfa.
Jae: Sometimes, it’s difficult to get a sense if what you’re reading is actually happening or something you want to happen. I wonder when I read about the rebirth of analog…is it something you are seeing in the shop? And if so, what do you think is behind it?
Jay: Yes and I think it’s because people realize, years from now, they won’t have all of these digital photos that they have on their phone. Photos are memories that people want to preserve. To me, digital is fast food and film is eating in a diner.
Digital can’t compete and people know that.
But we’ve also had to adapt. We still get customers that want prints but now they want us to email the scans. And whatever it is, I want to do it all in-house. When I used to have that candy store, a customer once came in asking for Newports – which I didn’t carry. I said to wait, and walked over to another store, got him Newports and charged nothing extra.
Jae: And what has changed in terms of how you reach your customers now compared to when you established the shop?
Jay: Well…Boris tried advertising – Facebook, Google – but nothing worked. Then he tried simplifying text, service descriptions, showing all service options and the next day we were getting our first customers from it. Then we were getting rolls coming in from different states. But we’re blessed with extremely nice customers, which I would say range from 15 to 25 years in age. I think the stairs keep the age range young!
Jae: Are you optimistic about the future of film?
Jay: It’s like vinyl. It’s slowly coming back. Some speed films are harder for me to carry but I don’t worry about companies like Fuji. They’re the same as everybody else. I still recommend Fujifilm. I like the green in the summertime.
Jae: And finally, do you still enjoy running the shop?
Yes, I’m enjoying the business and as long as Boris is here, I plan to stick around. I used to come in early, stay late and work seven days a week. But I learned to enjoy life a little more. Now I come in early and leave early.
Some closing thoughts
Jay: In my experience, stories like Jay’s – of big dreams and hard work – still abound. But the landscape of my neighborhood, like much of New York, is changing rapidly so it feels imperative to support and let the film community know of this gem of a shop.
Part of the reason film resonates with me is that I feel the weight of it. To the cameras that have somehow journeyed through decades and now into my hands. To the shops whose business I feel it is important to support. In my experience, the best way to explain to friends and family who wonder why I shoot film is by taking pictures and showing them how beautiful the medium can be.
One day, I would like to pass along my cameras to my little girl and if she is interested, I hope there is a little shop down the street from where she lives that she can go to develop her rolls.
If you’re in New York and want to take in some of its grassroots analog history, or even better, you want some film developed, you can find Jay and Boris at Photoreal, 52 Court St, Brooklyn, NY 11201, USA. Find them on the web at www.photoreal52.com.
Thanks for reading.
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