The Story of Bill Porter and Arlington Camera
by Steve Kozak
For thirty-three years, photographers across north Texas and beyond have walked through the doors of Arlington Camera to dream, to get advice, and to invest in the tools that produce their craft. And for each of those thirty-three years, Bill Porter has been the consistent face of the operation. What started as a $150,000 a year business in 1987 has grown to see sales over a million dollars during a single, busy December.
Harry Porter, Bill’s father, studied cinematography at UCLA and found himself working behind the counter at a local camera store in California. It was not long until his gift for working with people was noticed and he was offered a position as the branch manager of a company that sold photographic equipment to camera stores across a region that covered ten states. Bill Porter went to work for the same company, working under his father, as a sales rep and called on over 140 accounts in the southwest. “Back in those days, there were fourteen accounts just in Lubbock where today there is only one,” he recalls.
Bill’s line included names like Maranda cameras, Bauer movie cameras and Soligar lenses. “These were very famous names in the industry in those days,” he says. But even in the 1980’s, the business of photography was changing and Bill and Harry realized that the company was beginning to struggle. They knew it was only a matter of time before they were out of a job and they had to do something different. “Dad loved being behind the counter and working with the customers instead of behind a desk. That began the conversations of maybe getting into the retail side of things and opening a store. The thing is, neither one of us had ever been on the business end of running a store.”
Harry certainly knew how to work with customers and sales, so Bill started working on weekends for Craig Bracheen who owned a camera store in Arlington. “I would be on the road during the week calling on accounts and then work in the store (on weekends?) to learn the business. I worked like this for about two years, learning things like stock levels, purchase orders bank accounts and paying bills,” Bill explains. Before long, Craig was ready to retire and accepted an offer from the Porters to buy the store. With Bill’s knowledge of the operations of the store and Harry’s desire to get behind the sales counter, the father and son duo transformed the business and reopened as Arlington Camera on April 1, 1987.
The family business included Virginia Porter, Harry’s wife and Bill’s mom. “Mom worked behind the counter during those days. My brother was also part of the store.” Today, Bill’s wife, Angela, his daughter, Melanie, and his son, Danny, work in the store and bring their unique skill sets to the operation overseeing such elements as internet sales, social media marketing and more. “It’s always been a family operation,” says Bill.
Over the years, Bill Porter figures the store has reinvented itself at least five times to keep up with the changing market. He estimates that, during the early years, his customers were 80% male and 20% female. He says now that has been completely reversed with 80% of his clients being female. This trend led to the addition of the Photo Chicks Boutique which Angela oversees.
Digital photography was another major change for the store. “When digital was catching on, people would come in and say they would switch when digital became as good as film. Now, the quality of digital images has surpassed film. I can still remember the last roll of film sold in the store. Dwayne Lee came in and bought a case and that was the end of film,” he laughed. However, Bill adds that film is seeing something of a comeback with a new generation of young photographers.
About 25 years ago, Arlington Camera joined Texas School as the official vendor for the school. “That first year was the first time I ever saw a pallet of film. We had a pallet from Kodak and one from Fuji and I just knew we would never sell it all. Turns out, we completely sold out! The first year, I had no idea what to expect. I went to Texas School with just me and an employee. I had to make an emergency call home to get some more help to come join us.” After seeing Texas School in action, Bill introduced the vision of bringing a trade show to Texas School. Before Arlington Camera became involved, the previous vendor would hand out the gear on Sunday and go home. They would return for a Wednesday night “Country Store” and then pick up the gear on Friday.
“I’m a trade show guy!” says Bill. He started bringing in vendors and suppliers from the industry to set up a booth and talk about their products and the Texas School trade show took off. He explains that it takes two full loads in a 26 foot truck, plus 4 personal vehicles to get the gear to the school. He says it is easily over a million dollars in inventory that he brings. He loans over $400,000 worth of gear for the instructors to use during the week and then makes it available to the students with a nice discount. “I don’t think some of the students fully understand how much of a role the vendors play in keeping tuition low. Not to mention the dinners each night and the over-the-top parties. The rep’s give up a week of their time to be there to answer questions when they could be on the road making calls. All in all, it is a huge undertaking for everyone.”
Bill paused for a moment and shared, “We sometimes see folks spending a lot of time asking questions from my sales team, handling the gear and then open their phone to buy online. It breaks my heart.” He said that the difference in cost is often negligible. All too often, he sees those customers back in the store because the things they bought online did not come with a battery or a charger. “Of course, we take care of them, but I wish they would consider the impact of buying local when they can.” He admitted that Arlington Camera would not be in business today if it were not for the loyalty of customers from Texas School, PPA, the affiliates and long-time friends of the store.
Last April, the Texas School of Professional Photography awarded its first PPA National Award to Arlington Camera. Those who were in the audience cheered wildly and many of us had tears in our eyes watching Bill come forward to receive it. “I was shocked!” he said. “It shows that our efforts over the years have made a difference and that effort did not go unnoticed.” It turns out that was the second PPA National Award Bill Porter has received. He was also presented the award from the Professional Photographers Association of New Mexico.
The next time you need a camera or a lens or even a filter or a bag, consider making that purchase from an actual camera store. These stores invest in our education as photographers and sponsor our events. And remember, when you come to Texas School, Arlington Camera and the other vendors are helping keep the price of tuition one of the best values for your education dollar.