Dominion Camera’s 50th anniversary is a celebration as much as it is a testament to its graceful swim upstream in the face of a rapidly changing industry.
A Falls Church institution since former owner Tony Socarras moved the business within City limits in 1969, the camera store for both professionals and amateurs and known for its increasingly inimitable service of in-house film development reached the half-century mark in July. Ace Photo owner Mohsen Jalali and longtime Ace employee Gary Henry’s joint purchase of the store in 2014 was a sign of belief in the brand Socarras built as well as the two new owners’ savvy to more than tread water.
“The business, in 50 years, has gone through a complete evolution. From the analog world of film to what we see with digital today. To be able to weather that change and to be able to grow the business is pretty amazing,” Henry said. Jalali added later, “We didn’t purchase Dominion Camera for what it had in it; we bought it for the 45 years of business and the value of its goodwill and trust that customers would come back. And in the five years since purchasing we’ve shown growth.”
The store was bleeding out when Jalali and Henry first took it over from Socarras.
The then-85-year-old former owner was struggling to keep his inventory at a competitive level since he had to dedicate funds to support his ailing wife. Customers were starting to find alternatives to Dominion Camera, causing the business to suffer. It convinced Socarras to part ways with his baby before its value was irreparable.
Soccaras would visit Jalali at Ace Photo on occasion to restock his store and the two developed a professional relationship in the 20-plus years working with each other. According to Jalali, Socarras had expressed interest in selling Dominion Camera as far back as 2008 before the attention he needed to devote to his wife finally pushed him to do so.
The July anniversary celebration was intended to be for Socarras as much as it was for Jalali and Henry’s revival of the store’s role as a local enterprise. Unfortunately, Soccaras, who is now 90, couldn’t be reached after multiple attempts from Henry for the event.
Customers took full advantage of the specials offered for the anniversary.
Jalali and Henry decided to treat the event as they do Ace Photo’s semi-annual sale, giving customers in Falls Church and Arlington access to deals that store goers in Ashburn get in April and November. That also meant a host of representatives from major companies camera producers such as Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus and Panasonic turned out to showcase their wares.
Manh Phung used to be more dedicated to his photography hobby. A recent visit to Ace Photo and a chat with Jalali about the upcoming sale at Dominion Camera lured Phung to Falls Church where he purchased some new gear. Phung hopes — with a little help from the fact that he shelled out some serious money — it will spur him to pick the hobby back up.
Jimmy Mejia, another anniversary customer, is just getting into photography. He stopped by Dominion Camera for the first time to stock up on some basic gear, but was more drawn by how they develop film inside their own premises. It was important for him that the store offered that service at a reasonable price.
Henry notes that’s arguably one of the most attractive elements of the Falls Church location. Along with being able to restore old photos and even colorize them — “A lost art,” said Henry — Dominion Camera can also process film and print big blow-up photos that patrons might frame and place at the top of their stairwell, for instance. Many photographers are shocked they even receive negatives once their processed film is returned.
That uniqueness hasn’t made maintaining steady growth any easier.
Jalali mentions that big box retailers based out of New York City or who use Amazon to offer pricing that brick-and-mortar operations like Dominion’s make it hard to compete.
It’s a complex formula to pull off on top of the industry’s constant churn in trends, but one that Henry and Jalali are able to mostly perfect thanks to one defining factor.
“People want a personal touch. They don’t want to just be a number on a crate or box,” Jalali said. “Customers come in and ask the weirdest questions, but we always have someone who can provide an answer. When it comes to this business it’s a bit more technical and you need to have more knowledge. It helps build support from our repeat customers.”