Peoria photography store to close after 84 years in business |

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.

A set of vintage cameras decorate a shelf at Peoria Camera in the Metro Centre in Peoria on Feb. 1, 2022. Over 84 years, Peoria Camera Shop survived changes in location and changes in how people took and preserved photographs. 

“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.

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Customers work at printing photos, far right, while another takes a closer look at a print at Peoria Camera in the Metro Centre in Peoria on Feb. 1, 2022. Over 84 years, Peoria Camera Shop survived changes in location and changes in how people took and preserved photographs. 

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.

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An old newspaper advertisement touts the opening of the Peoria Camera Shop in Main Street in Peoria on Feb. 1, 2022. Over 84 years, Peoria Camera Shop survived changes in location and changes in how people took and preserved photographs. 

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.

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The Peoria Camera Shop in Main Street in Peoria is shown on Feb. 1, 2022. The The untimely death of owner Bill Dobbins has forced Peoria Camera in the Metro Centre to shut down. The longtime business is closing down for good Feb. 25. 

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.

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Peoria Camera employee Travis Carlson works in the lab surrounded by photos of later owner Bill Dobbins’ grandchildren in Peoria on Feb. 1, 2022. Over 84 years, Peoria Camera Shop survived changes in location and changes in how people took and preserved photographs. 

“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.

For the Parks family, living in their brand new house is a dream come true.”We have four bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, a loft; I’ve always dreamed of having a kitchen island,” said Jessica Parks.It’s a dream they pursued for years on the South Side of Chicago, until they decided five years ago that they’d seen enough.”I could have been in the crossfire,” Parks said. “If you needed food right away, you had to drive a far distance to go and get it.”They decided to try their luck 30 miles southeast in St. John, Indiana a much, smaller place with better-rated public schools and a lower cost of living.”This is my very happy cornfield,” Jennifer said. “Taxes are a lot lower. It’s hard to tell now, but food is still less expensive out here.”The Parks’ say they couldn’t be happier with their decision to leave the windy city behind.  They’re among more than 250,000 Black Chicagoans who moved out of Chicago in the past 20 years, often to neighboring states like Indiana or south to Texas, Georgia or Arizona. Chicago’s Black population dropped by 10% over the last decade, continuing a steady decline since peaking in the 1980s.”It’s a quintessential story of a decline in terms of disinvestment in the areas that Black people live in, you know, on the South Side,” said Stacey Sutton, professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois Chicago.Black people have long shaped the culture and identity of Chicago the countrys third largest city and a popular landing spot during “The Great Migration.”An estimated 500,000 African Americans moved there from the South at the beginning of the 20th century.”This has been a Black mecca for so long,” Sutton said.But gun violence, lack of jobs and good schools in the city’s predominantly Black neighborhoods are pushing people out.  “It’s the confluence,” Sutton said. “If it was any one of these factors, I think people would be able to negotiate them and stay. People love Chicago. Chicagoans love their city.”Asiaha Butler could have long left Englewood: a once-vibrant Black community that is now one of Chicagos most violent and run-down neighborhoods.  “A lot of shootings were happening on the block,” Butler said. “We just said, ‘A lot of our family left for Georgia. We might as well follow them there.'”But she decided to stay put and fight for change as the head of a group that aims to revive the area. This is a vacant elementary school,” Butler said. “My brother actually went here, graduated from here and now it’s been vacant since 2013. “Us, in a collaboration with other organizations, are going to revamp this to be housing and a clinic.”Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot declined to be interviewed for this piece. She has vowed to address the disparities that have long plagued the city. One of her signature projects is a $750 million plan to develop pockets of the South and West sides, including Englewood.But Butler says it’s not enough.Invest South/West, the project that they’re working on, is centered in one location, whereas we have all of this that needs to be invested in,” Butler said.Chicago’s black exodus is also shifting its politics.  Latinos recently overtook Black people as the citys largest minority prompting a political fight between the two groups over how to redraw the citys electoral map. As for the Parks family in Indiana they havent entirely closed the door on Chicago. “I still would love to live downtown,” Jason Parks said. “Im not giving up on Chicago.”

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.”

Kenneth Proto

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