Dexter’s Camera has been a fixture on Main Street in Downtown Ventura for more than 50 years. In 1960, Dexter Halpert purchased the store from County Camera and his helpful, friendly personality established the store’s image and set the wheels in motion for it to become a mainstay in the downtown district. Though it has moved to different storefronts over the years, it has never shed its positive reputation. Not only do people rely on the store for the variety of professional photography services and equipment offered, but owner Greg Montano is the Sam Malone of Cheers for the camera biz — helpful, humorous and always willing to lend an attentive ear for his regular customers and new visitors as well as offering interesting stories of his own. (He is a family man, though, ladies, unlike the notorious Malone.)
Montano’s destiny with Dexter’s Camera wasn’t exactly planned. Ten years after Halpert purchased the store, he decided to switch to employee-owned, which distributed ownership to three employees. Of the employees, one was Montano’s stepfather, Mike Chandler, who eventually bought out the other employees in the early ’90s. Chandler ran the store until 2005, when he had a heart attack and died, putting the legacy of Dexter’s into Montano’s hands. While Montano’s vision for his future varied from biochemist to some kind of Indian chief, or so he says, taking over the family business came naturally for him, having grown up in the store. But the tidal wave of change in the camera and photography industry over the last decade has carved a different path for the store, leading to revamping the interior, boosting the services and focusing on the experience of photography. In celebration of the rebranding of Dexter’s Camera, this Friday, Aug. 30, Pistol Magazine presents pre-Ventura Nationals Photography Show and Dexter’s Grand Re-Opening at 484 E. Main St., Ventura, from 7 to 11 p.m. and free to the public. But first, a little about what makes Dexter’s Camera unique.
Selling the experience of photography
When Montano took over the store in 2005, the evolutions of the camera phone and the digital camera were sweeping the marketplace. People no longer needed to turn in their film to be developed — images could be saved to desktop computers, printed at home or digitally sent out to friends and family all over the world. And with the touch smartphone, even home computers were becoming unnecessary in the sharing of images. Further, the advent of online shopping hit all retailers hard, especially camera stores. And so Montano had to adjust the store’s business model.
“[The store] was based more on selling new stuff,” Montano said. “It has changed, more labor-based now.”
Dexter’s Camera audio room, circa 1972.
As a storefront, Montano and 10-year employee Matt Rascoe, a CalArts graduate, owner of Pistol magazine and a highly published automotive photographer, plus the rest of the crew, Andrew Livingston, Justin Ekema and Loren Hamilton, offer customers a variety of services from printing and transfer (video tapes to DVD, etc.) services to photo editing and restorations and equipment rentals and repairs. In addition, Dexter’s Camera has begun to offer photography classes and has space for rent for antique dealers. Though Montano noted, as reported by the Digital Photographic review, that camera sales are down 50 percent over last year, he is personally seeing a resurgence in photography with film cameras.
“Six or seven years ago, it was all going to phones,” Montano said. “[Personally,] if I really care, I shoot film.”
And that sentiment is being shared. As a part of rebranding Dexter’s Camera image, he and his staff are “selling the experience of photography.” Rather than just tapping the touch screen on our phones, the actual experience of holding, focusing, creating a scene, capturing and developing the image is gaining momentum. Lucky for Montano, he is able not only to do this with the latest in digital cameras, but also with his collection of film cameras. Enter Ventura County’s, perhaps even Southern California’s, most extensive and unique archive of more than 500 antique cameras.
The one-of-a-kind collection
“I don’t collect anything — I am a contradiction,” Montano said. “Though I currently have over 500 [old cameras] in my collection.”
As was noted, Montano isn’t the kind of person who collects anything with a passion — with one exception: cameras. When he took over operations at the store, he found a small collection that the previous owners had already started to build, and he just went with it. At any given time, Montano or his staff will be wheeling and dealing in cameras akin to the cast of Pawn Stars. Though the crew may pawn or purchase newer digital cameras, Montano seems to be especially partial to antiques.
In his collection, he has a spy camera disguised as a pocket watch, a video camera no bigger than the palm of an adult hand, a lens dating back to 1864, a camera to 1891, old reporter cameras, vintage box cameras and original Polaroid cameras and so much more. It would seem as though Dexter’s Camera has the complete history of camera technology on its shelves. And too few know about it.
“Old cameras are cool,” Montano said. “Old [camera] mechanics are cool.”
Cast of characters and surprising images
With a prime spot on Main Street and the oldest family-owned camera store in Ventura County, Dexter’s Camera gets its fair share of interesting and unusual visitors. Take, for instance, Arthur Burghardt, a man well-known for his voice roles. But the guys at Dexter’s Camera remembered him clearly from their childhoods — Destro from G.I. Joe, the animated 1980s TV series. He was a regular customer of and colorful character at Dexter’s Camera. Other familiar faces include George Lucas and Hellboy Ron Perlman. Montano was also privileged to work with some of the original film from Johnny Cash’s shoot in jail with the infamous middle-finger shot. From the awesome, what appears to be, a German man in racing gear in front of a Porsche racing car with a falcon resting on his arm, to the creepy exorcism-style picture, plus loads more off-the-wall images, Dexter’s Camera is not only rich with expertise in the field, but personality and eclecticism, and seems sure to remain at least another 60 years as Ventura County’s oldest and most unique camera store.
For more information on Dexter’s Camera, call 643-2172 or go to www.dexterscamera.com. Dexter’s Camera is located at 484 E. Main St., Ventura.