Dot Dotson’s: The Answer is Atmosphere

By Mitch Rymeski

A Photo Legacy Emerges

You’re on a stroll through Eugene, Oregon in the 1930s.

Times are tough: The city just shut down the trolley system so you have to walk to work but the pace allows ample time to observe the new developments in the neighborhood. New businesses keep shooting up despite the financial woes of the depression, like the new ballpark under construction on 22nd and Willamette or the reservoir on College Hill. The Eugene Symphony Association just started a program to teach music to youngsters called the Arts Umbrella, and United Airways is considering making Eugene Airpark on Chambers Street a routine stop on their west coast route.

Meanwhile, a local banker who’s been selling photo supplies out of his brother’s electronics store decides to open his own business on 11th and Oak. It’s Dot Dotson’s, the first official photo supply store in Eugene, and its mission is to provide top of the line film processing services and photography products to Oregonians.

Jump ahead 79 years.

The former runways of Eugene Airpark are now Frisbee golf links and Civic Stadium is fighting extinction but Dot Dotson’s photo supply remains, accruing enough revenue to donate a portion to the now historic Arts Umbrella.

Eugene has changed drastically over the years but Dot Dotson’s has remained true to its mission, an increasingly difficult task in the current economic climate. More pressing than the changing economy is the changing world of photography. For a traditional photo finishing shop, adjusting to meet consumer demands following the advent of digital photo technology has proved to be no easy task.

“The Dot Dotson’s staff is very helpful and friendly and they do have one of the only repair shops in town,” says Erik Bishoff, a local professional photographer, “but they don’t offer enough in the way of ‘current’ equipment.”

Most of the shop’s business comes from digital photographers these days, which isn’t a bad thing, but the slump in demand for film processing and printmaking has taken a noticeable chunk out of potential business.

“When digital came roaring in, all of the sudden people didn’t need to process film to know what they had, they only printed what they wanted to so it made a huge dent in what we did.” Says Jim Dotson, the store’s owner.

It’s no secret that small niche businesses like Dot Dotson’s are becoming increasingly rare in the era of big box stores and one-stop shopping centers, but what separates Dotson’s from the endless tally of other camera stores that were seemingly swallowed whole by Best Buy and online megastores?

The Glory Days

The answer is atmosphere.

There were no Best Buys in the 70s. There was no Amazon.com.

When you wanted something, there was a store for it. You never spent hours online arbitrarily reading testimonies by people you don’t know reviewing products you haven’t tested.

Say you’re in the market for a new camera. You go to a local store and the staff helps you pick out the best camera to suit your individual needs. There may be an employee who might even teach you how to use it if you purchase it. Why? Because the staff is a dedicated group of photographers who know the products inside and out.

“I managed to cultivate a ‘Cheers’-like atmosphere at Dot Dotson’s during the 70s.” Says former Dot Dotson’s employee Jack Liu, who worked there for 18 years. He feels that the casual nature of the shop was one of the reasons it was so popular among local photographers.

“The Dotson family wasn’t intensely into photography, so the benign neglect was a good thing,” Liu notes, “we could freelance out of the shop and the owners didn’t mind so we got to know the community who would later be our customers”

The Dot Dotson’s legacy used to span across several locations in Eugene, a chain of franchises called “Shutter Shops,” and even a location in Bend. During the glory days of analog photography, a community of professional and amateur photographers would regularly gather at Dot Dotson’s West 11th Ave location.

“Back then, working at a camera store to a photographer was like waiting tables for an actor,” says Liu, now a professional photographer.

Today the story is different; you would be hard pressed to find a community of up and coming photographers hanging out in the camera department at a Walmart.

Analog Photography’s Swan Song

The rigid 1960s architecture of the former Volkswagen dealership on Willamette Street defines the profile of the sole remaining Dot Dotson’s location, and the glow emanating from the all-capital neon letters adorning the storefront is reminiscent of the amber glow of darkroom lamps of old.

Inside, a small gallery featuring photos of Italian coastlines overlooks a petite showroom and a sparse wall of cameras behind the sales counter. In the backroom, giant film processing machines tower over desks and a makeshift conference table.

The amber light from a solitary darkroom still glows.

“It’s a dwindling business,” says Dotson, “the things that paid the bills for photo finishing shops at one time don’t quite cut it anymore.”

Film has become somewhat of a novelty in recent years with the influx of the younger generations purchasing Holgas and other ‘toy’ cameras for the grainy, vintage looking pictures they produce, but this mild spark of interest is not enough to keep the lights on at a traditional photo finishing shop. The bulk of consumers have no interest in film; it’s expensive, it takes up space, it’s harder to use, and it doesn’t offer the immediacy of digital photography.

Analog photography has fallen victim to Moore’s Law, a theory predicting that the amount of transistors that can fit on a circuit board doubles every two years. With this rate of development it’s assumed that virtually anything can be reproduced more cheaply and efficiently with digital technology, so cameras have essentially gone the way of radios, calculators and phones.

In a matter of four years, Dot Dotson’s payroll has shrunk from 30 to about a dozen employees, but this dozen has no plan to quit.

“It’s kind of like a second home,” says veteran Dotson’s employee Janet Stroble, “so our people are very dedicated to keeping this place going.” She’s lost track of how long she’s worked at Dotson’s but it’s been over three decades.

A Nebulous Future

A certain level of credit is due to an independent store that manages to survive in such a tumultuous market as photography.

“To be able to weather that kind of revamping of products and services is impressive,” says Doug Fischer, a former pro photographer and Dot Dotson’s employee, “but film and paper manufacturers need a certain level of demand to keep production going and that demand is going to die, so I’m not sure what Dotson’s will do when that day arrives.”

Theoretically Dotson’s could dominate the photography market in Eugene simply because it’s the last shop standing, but that would require a degree of capitalization that isn’t appealing to the store’s current management. To compete with the big box stores you need a big box mentality, but that’s a path Dot Dotson’s isn’t willing to brave to turn a bigger profit.

“There isn’t enough money to support it unless you dominate the market, but that would require too much capitalization,” says Jack Liu “like how Market of Choice thought Whole Foods was coming to Eugene so they did this big thing to try to dominate the market; it worked but they had to borrow money and there was a lot of risk involved.”

Dot Dotson’s next move is uncertain but one thing is clear: When the last of the independent niche stores are gone, people are going to miss them. No, this isn’t the first story about the death of small business and the rise of the megastore, but Dotson’s story is different than most. Vacuum shops and neighborhood variety stores don’t foster tight knit communities as Dotson’s once did. The megastores and big box outlets, the internet and online equipment retailers don’t provide the opportunities to aspiring young artists and journalists that this store has by virtue of its existence, its tradition.

Contrary to the casual nature of local shops, most megastores are profit hounds that would shudder at the thought of employees freelancing out of their various departments. There isn’t time to mingle with customers or teach them how to use the products sold because there are more customers waiting to be duped into buying expensive cameras chalked full of features they don’t need.

“If you go to Dotson’s, it will cost you more but those people will tell you how to use it,” says Jack Liu, “if your frustrated they’ll sit around for hours and put up with you. That’s worth something, but how do you turn a profit from it?”

Businesses like Dot Dotson’s are experiencing the pressures of a triple threat offensive of technology, consolidation and emerging markets. Weathering the storms of the digital wave, big box discounters, and the online marketplace may be a considerable amount of pressure for a family run icon, but icons like Dotson’s still hold the key to one lock which outside economic forces have yet to crack. It’s the nature of the community, the audience that truly owns and influences the success of the brand.

“There’s a loyalty factor in with people in the area,” says Dotson’s employee and professional photographer Don May, “people in Eugene really advocate shopping local, so that helps.”

Operating in the shadows of online purveyors and local giants, Dot Dotson’s will need to adapt quickly and constantly to keep the doors open. The staff believes the business will continue to endure the technological and economic pressures with the help of the committed followers in the photographic community, and that commitment combined with the dedication of the staff will continue to drive the business.

“We’re hoping they’ll keep it going as long as possible,” says Janet Stroble, “But who knows.”

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Sidebar #1

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Sidebar #2

Jim Dotson, Owner

Jim Dotson grew up in a photo lab. Printers, developing tanks, and photography buffs have surrounded him throughout his entire life. From kindergarten forth the unmistakable scent of darkroom chemicals would follow Dotson everywhere, but despite this photo-centric history, when questioned about his identity his response is firm:

“I’m not a photographer.” Says Dotson in a soft but confident voice, a curious reply from a man who has owned and operated a camera store and photo lab for the better part of 40 years. Photography may not be his passion, but clearly there’s something driving him to maintain Dot Dotson’s, the photo supply store his father opened in South Eugene nearly 80 years ago.

Dotson maneuvers through the rows of massive negative processing machines and four-foot-wide photo printers and pauses in front of an open doorway. An amber glow emanates from the entrance to the sole remaining darkroom at Dot Dotson’s.

“It’s getting to the point where you can replicate true black and white with other techniques and papers, but we still keep this set up in the back for occasional use.” He says, orange glare reflecting in his rectangular glasses.

He briefly adjusts his wide brim fedora before entering as if preparing to transcend a portal into a different dimension. In a sense the darkroom is a different dimension, a glimpse of another point in photographic history, but Dotson preserves the nostalgic space for the same reason he maintains the shop itself: Consistency.

“There’s a certain level of comfort that comes with living in a town that has some stability.” Dotson says. His store, along with others such as Skeie’s Jewelry and Newman’s Fish Market, have history dating back almost a century in the Eugene business community.

But owning and operating Dot Dotson’s was not Jim Dotson’s dream. If you ask him how he found himself in the photography business he will tell you “it was an accident of birth.”

“I’m a musician,” he continues, “I took a couple years off from the shop to pursue the ambitious things people pursue in their twenties.”

But Dotson’s dreams stretched further than a couple years during his twenties.  Following a brief musical appearance in the 1968 film The Way West, a week working on the sitcom The Jean Arthur Show, a month of “camping out” in actor-musician Robert Mitchum’s living room in Hollywood, and a slew of gigs at benefits and hoot nights in Los Angeles, Dotson played in a local bluegrass band for a decade and a half between the 80s and 90s, touring the Northwest and playing festivals in California.

These days he jams with friends on the weekends and occasionally plays with a folk group at the Shedd Institute for the Arts in Eugene, ensuring he gets his “weekly regiment of music.”

Though Dotson never made a living out of his passion for music, he’s content with the life he’s made operating his father’s photo store, the consistency it provides as a historical business in the community, and the comfort and stability it provides to his employees, so he plans to keep his father’s dream alive.

“It’s a nebulous future but I have an idea that we will continue on.” Says Dotson, his full, seasoned beard adjusting to fit the shape of his confident smile.

Jim Dotson hasn’t always been so sure Dot Dotson’s would make it, but his devotion to his employees, most of which have worked at the store for 15 to 20 years, has driven him to maintain the now steady business.

“It’s hard to get a job these days, and they depend on us,” says Dotson, watching his busy employees answer phones and carefully inspect photos for blemishes, “They are the reason I decided to keep going when we were close to shutting it down.

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