The following story appeared in the Park Labrea News and Beverly Press 70th Anniversary issue, published April 21. To view the entire issue, click here.
Nearly 60 years ago, William Herskovic – the uncle of Samy Kamienowicz, who founded Samy’s Camera – was the first in the family to leave Belgium for Los Angeles. But the family’s photography story starts long before they came to America.
When Germany started to invade countries throughout Europe during World War II, Herskovic was captured by Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. Samy explained that laborers and people from the villages near the camps performed maintenance tasks that the prisoners were not allowed to do. Herskovic and two prisoners obtained clippers from the laborers, cut the wires on the fence and escaped.
He made it back to Belgium and successfully hid on a farm until after the war was over.
Herskovic then opened a camera shop in Brussels when photography equipment was not easy to come by.
Samy worked for his uncle after school and started to get a feel for the business, but Herskovic and his wife were no longer happy in Europe.
“It was their dream to come to America,” Samy said.
In 1957, Herskovic moved across the world to California where he opened Bel Air Camera in Westwood. Samy’s family remained in Belgium for a year, and he found work at a large camera lab in Brussels, but his mother wanted to be closer to her sister. In 1958, Samy’s family followed Herskovic to California.
Samy worked for his uncle at Bel Air Camera for 18 years. Without speaking a word of English, Samy started out washing windows and cleaning floors.
In 1976, he opened the first of many Samy’s Camera stores at Beverly and La Cienega Boulevards, close to where Tail o’ the Pup used to be.
He started small with rentals, professional film and Polaroid equipment. Because Samy’s Camera was able to provide service that larger chains couldn’t, the business grew and expanded.
By 1992, things seemed pretty picturesque for Samy. His flagship store at Beverly Boulevard and Detroit Street was doing very well. But while he was on a trip to England with other industry members, he learned that his store might be in trouble. On April 30, 1992 after the Rodney King trial ended, the ensuing riots were moving north from South Central L.A. Samy’s brother-in-law called him on the plane en route to London to tell him that rioters were getting closer to the store and the employees were getting nervous.
“I said close the store and send everyone home,” Samy said. “Some store owners stayed at their business and tried to protect their stores. But I couldn’t ask my people to do that, especially when I wasn’t there.”
Rioters broke into the store and eventually set the building on fire. Massive flames erupted through the roof and thick black smoke billowed from the top of the store. A video taken that day shows dozens and dozens of community members helping a handful of firefighters with hoses trying to put out the flames.
“The store burned down. We landed in England and turned around and took a flight right back,” Samy said. “That was the most traumatic thing.”
But that didn’t stop Samy. Less than a week later, he had Samy’s Camera up and running again in a rented party tent in the parking lot.
“Thank God our customers brought their rented equipment back,” Samy said.
It was the start of a tough journey to rebuild. Samy started shipping merchandise and built up the inventory again.
“It was just survival,” Samy said. “We had to do it. There was nothing else I could do. I think it just made me more determined not to give up.”
After operating in the parking lot for a few weeks, Samy’s Camera opened where the Trader Joe’s now stands at Third Street and La Brea Avenue, and his business dug itself out of the hole.
Samy said it took about five years to “get out of the mess” and pay back the money his company owed. The total loss was approximately $10 million. The company had only about $3 million in insurance at the time, and Samy’s Camera almost went bankrupt and out of business.
He teamed up with Ben Silverman, who was a customer, friend and attorney, to work with banks and creditors to make up for the lost merchandise.
“We were lucky that the suppliers helped us and were good to us,” Samy said.
In addition to his determination, Samy’s reputation and business model kept his store alive.
“We have a pretty solid reputation,” he said. “That’s probably the most precious thing – your name. We try to protect that as much as we can.”
In 2000, Samy’s Camera opened the current flagship at 431 S. Fairfax Ave., and has since opened more locations around Los Angeles and as far north as San Francisco.
Today, Samy continues to expand and grow his business in the face of new challenges. From competition online, such as Amazon, to cell phone cameras to out-of-state businesses taking advantage of tax rates in Los Angeles, Samy’s Camera has survived it all. With Samy’s tenacity and resolve, his business continues to adapt and thrive.
One secret that kept Samy’s alive is that they can offer services that Amazon can’t. At the educational department, called Samy’s Photo School, customers can attend workshops and courses to learn anything from basic photography and lighting, Photoshop and software classes, to in-depth courses for beginning and advanced hobbyists or professionals, as well as classes for elementary school students.
Considering that Samy is thriving in the face of the challenges he met, and will continue to do so, it is clear that Samy’s Camera was meant to be.