Freelancer Nick Ellis used to drive all the way to downtown Bakersfield from his home in Taft to check out the latest in camera technology — to touch it, feel it in his hands — and, of course, ask a few questions of the experts at Henley's Photo Inc.
"Henley's was always the place that you went when you needed to buy something of quality, either prints or gear," Ellis said.
But times change, and so do camera technologies. The Henley's he and others remember as Kern's pre-eminent photo shop is facing another substantial change, and its future is as uncertain as ever.
Early this year Henley's left its second downtown home after 72 years in business. Now owner Jimmy Bunting, preparing for a new career in the medical field, is looking to sell.
"It's a bittersweet transition for us and we hope that Henley's will continue to be a staple Bakersfield business for many more years," Bunting said by email Tuesday. He added that the business was hurt by COVID-19 and only recently reopened, by appointment only, at 4300 Easton Drive, Suite 4.
The announcement is the latest twist for a business that originated in 1948 at the corner of Chester Avenue and 17th Street. It has since been bought and sold by owners attempting to make adjustments so the shop can survive and thrive in the age of digital photography.
But it hasn't been easy. Bunting bought the place in 2013, when the business was still located at the corner of 20th and H streets. He quickly consolidated the business to the eastern portion of a former auto shop, focusing on processing film and making prints.
Before him, Delano farm labor contractor Craig Neville made a go of it, buying the business in 2010 from longtime owner Thomas Burch. Neville's idea was to focus on hobbyists.
He remodeled the store, put in computer stations for customers to work on their images and rented out darkrooms. He also set up a website where customers could email digital files that Henley's could touch up and print for pick-up.
A central challenge for Henley's owners has been the rise of digital photography. Everyone, it seems, has a smartphone that allows them to take, manipulate and transmit photos quickly and easily.
Local photo professionals say Henley's was for a long time the No. 1 place in town to have photos processed. They say the staff was knowledgeable, the selection of camera equipment was unparalleled within Kern County and it was a place amateurs and professionals could come for a variety of services.
"Henley's was the place," said freelance Bakersfield photographer Felix Adamo, who described the business in the same terms as the beloved and now-defunct Bakersfield restaurant the Noriega Hotel. "To me it was the same type of company."
Adamo said that even after digital photography gained in popularity he used to stop in Henley's for black-and-white film that couldn't be found anywhere else in town. Even now, he said, people look to Henley's for film processing service that's otherwise hard to find locally.
A photo lab technician he works with, Valerie Vidal, worked at Henley's for about three years until 2019. She said people used to drop by their unprocessed film canisters at Henley's before stopping in at nearby Dagny's Coffee Co.
"It was part of their daily to-do list," she said.
There's been something of a resurgence in original, non-digital photography, Vidal said, as people find their grandfather's old camera and "get kind of curious." They also turned to Henley's for conversion of 8-millimeter film and other older technologies to new digital formats.
"People would always constantly express how much they were grateful for Henley's being around after all these years," she said.
There may yet be people around who are interested in keeping the place going, if only for its sentimental value, she said. Plus, there are few other photo businesses in town and customers like a place they can walk up to, she said.
Ellis said what has happened to Henley's is a little disheartening but that photography has simply changed a lot.
"It's really sad because (Henley's) was a place that you could get really great personal service," he said. "For me that was priceless."