PEORIA — Over 84 years, Peoria Camera Shop survived changes in location and changes in how people took and preserved photographs.
But it appears it might not survive the death of “The Camera Guy.”
Located at the Metro Centre shopping plaza, Peoria Camera Shop plans to close for good Feb. 25. Its photo-processing laboratory probably will shutter next week, although the store is to continue to sell cameras, lenses and other equipment through February, the Journal Star reports.
The unexpected passing of Bill Dobbins, who purchased the store in 2007, led to the closure, according to his son, Nate Dobbins. The elder Dobbins, a Morton resident, was 61 when he died two days before Christmas.
“I feel like I’m bragging by saying this, but I feel like it’s a huge loss for the community,” Nate Dobbins said about the store’s impending closure. “It’s a huge loss for my family. But … this is the next step for my family in our grieving process.”
Eric Brinker, the Metro Centre president, told the Journal Star he is working with the Dobbins family to try to find a potential buyer.
“Bill built such a strong business, with over 30 years of history, and we want to do whatever we can to preserve his legacy and see it continue to thrive for years to come,” Brinker stated in an email.
Darla Dobbins, Bill Dobbins’ widow, is the store’s co-owner. Nate Dobbins and his three sisters also survive Bill Dobbins, as do 13 grandchildren.
Bill Dobbins operated the Peoria Camera Shop printing lab for 17 years before he took over the entire operation. Before that, he was a professional photographer.
“He was kind of known as ‘The Camera Guy,’ at least around Morton,” Nate Dobbins said. “You’d always see him carrying his camera around.”
Peoria Camera Shop carried photographic devices from the day it opened, in 1937 along Monroe Street in Downtown Peoria. In 1950, the downtown store moved to 539 Main St. and remained there for 46 years.
In 1990, Peoria Camera Shop opened its Metro Centre location. The business had several owners, including founders Joe Kilton and Huber Sammis, before Bill Dobbins purchased it.
From then, Nate Dobbins was the store manager. He started working there when he was a teenager. Operating its film processor was among his initial duties.
But in 2018, the younger Dobbins left his father’s employ and became a stay-at-home father of three, including twin girls who now are 3. Dobbins’ wife, Leah, is a physician. In 2020, they moved to Knoxville, Tennessee.
Nate Dobbins’ departure changed the calculus regarding the Peoria Camera Shop future.
“The initial line of succession five years ago was me,” Dobbins said from his new home. “But when I decided to move on, (my parents) started preparing for retirement. The business was for sale, but not like publicly for sale.
“If they found somebody to buy it, great. If they didn’t, this was going to be the result, closing the doors.”
Bill Dobbins’ death hastened the process.
“I had an eight-hour drive from here to Morton,” Nate Dobbins said about the aftermath, “and the whole time I’m thinking, ‘Holy crap, what am I going to do with Peoria Camera Shop?’ I didn’t foresee it happening for another five years.”
A newspaper advertisement heralded the opening of Peoria Camera Shop in 1950 at its new location, 539 Main St.
As time passed, the store evolved — particularly as film photography declined, digital photography ascended and cellphone technology improved. Business fell somewhat.
Dobbins said things rebounded in the past decade, buoyed by customers who wanted prints of cellphone photos. Christmas-card photo prints were particularly popular. Such items could be ordered online, a key element during the coronavirus pandemic.
Longevity and product comprehensiveness helped earn Peoria Camera Shop a broad customer base geographically, according to Dobbins. Shoppers came from Bloomington, Champaign, Quincy and Springfield, among other places.
Customers also were loyal, as the store-closure announcement this week highlighted.
“It was not an easy decision to do this. I’m getting bombarded with emails from people that are sad,” Dobbins said. “We understand Peoria Camera Shop is a cornerstone business for Peoria.”
It also was a cornerstone business for the Dobbins family. Dobbins said the family history there is what he’ll miss the most — as well as his father’s presence.
“Those of us who worked for him and my mom were the legs and the arms and fingers and toes, but Dad is the one that literally poured his heart and soul into that place,” Dobbins said. “He loved every minute of it.”