End of an era for the 107-year-old Schenectady photography company


SCHENECTADY – The door to the Photo-Lab rang at a steady pace last week, welcoming moviegoers, people using self-treatment machines and customers choosing from shelves filled with vintage cameras, of unused flashes and billboards from the 1950s.

The Photo-Lab is closing its doors after 107 years, the latest victim of the problems plaguing the Wedgeway, one of the most important buildings in downtown Schenectady.

The end came when owner John Eoff got into a fight with his owner over a leaking roof, the latest in a series of issues and litigation swirling around the crumbling complex on the corner of State Street and Erie Boulevard .

“I was forced into it and originally wanted to do it for a few more years,” Eoff said.

A member of the Eoff family has run the operation since 1914, when Eoff’s great-grandfather, Beverly Eoff, launched the first incarnation from his Regent Street home in the town’s GE Realty Plot.

GE Review’s deputy editor began dabbling in photography before company executives told the photographer to work full-time or take a hike – so he walked.

At the time, Kodak was gaining momentum and technology allowed more and more well-defined images.

The Photo-Lab’s first storefront was on Wall Street, the now-lost thoroughfare that once went to the original Schenectady station. There were others on Jay Street, as well as pop-up satellite stores during the holidays.

Beverly Eoff died in 1940 and his wife, Harriet, led the operation while her son served in the South Pacific during World War II. Upon her return, Beverly Jr. took over, moving the Photo-Lab to its current location at 273 State St. in 1949, starting with selling cameras and equipment before moving on to stationery and greeting cards.

John Eoff grew up sweeping floors, dumping garbage, and doing other menial tasks. But he was not interested in carrying the torch.

“It’s not that I hated it,” Eoff said, “but I had no interest in the business.”

Eoff moved to Rochester to pursue a career as an artist. Years later, dad called with a proposal:

Come home and work in the store. Save money and pay your bills.

Eoff loved it.

It was in the summer of 77, when GE was still welcoming a large workforce.

“I remember a constant stream of people walking up the sidewalks on both sides at lunchtime,” Eoff said.

Buses were crowded, and in the days of pre-malls, the city center was full of department stores. Thursdays generated so much foot traffic that city police stepped up food patrols.

Eoff, 69, considered himself primarily in the human relations arena and he knew everyone from Eastman Kodak rep teams and equipment suppliers to other salespeople who came to his store regularly.

Legendary Schenectady Gazette photographers like Sid Brown, Ed Schultz and Jim Cassin were also on hand.

Eoff used to haul crates of darkroom chemicals to the newspaper, which housed both his headquarters and nearby print shop at the time.

When downtown darkened in the 1990s, Eoff held on, never shaken by the general vacuum and the seedy element that kept others away.

“I have never felt in danger here,” he said.

Eoff was fascinated by technological changes in the industry, from pocket-sized, box-shaped Kodaks with names like the “Folding Brownie” to the advent of iPhones a century later.

Technology, he said, can be beautiful in its simplicity.

But what has dried up during the digital switchover is the disintegration of interpersonal relationships.

“You all knew these people and they became your friends,” Eoff said. “All of that is gone, and all we are now is just a number and a phone call and a sales volume.”

Despite the obstacles, Photo-Lab has retained a niche as the interest in traditional photography has been picked up in recent years by enthusiasts who again see fashionable and retro craftsmanship.

Photo-Lab was also one of the few places in the area where photographers could just walk in and talk shop.

Eoff apologized last week when he turned down a client seeking to develop a role in a film

The Photo-Lab will close on November 30, almost two years to the day when building issues have started to spill over into the public, in part due to a lack of heat in Eoff’s store.

Fences continue to surround the boulevard Erie side of the imposing structure to protect passers-by from falling bricks.

The Photo-Lab is the last commercial tenant to leave the Wedgeway / Kresge complex, joining the Wedgeway Barbershop, Grog Shoppe, State Street Tattoo Co. and Downtown Convenience. Residential tenants have also left, a cement exodus when National Grid cut power to that part of the building.

And now?

“My wife has a list of projects as long as her arm,” Eoff said.


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