When Rode’s Camera Shop was burned down Monday night, more than a local business went up in flames.
Much, much more.
The store first opened for business in 1911 and had been a fixture in the community for more than a hundred years.
“This was just a building, but people’s memories were inside. That’s what is killing me,” said Paul Willette.
“A woman had just come in Monday and brought in a photo of her grandparents in elementary school, wanting it to be restored. I left it on my desk,” he said. “Now it’s all gone. Our customers lost family memories.”
Willette stood in front of the steaming pile of rubble Thursday that was his store, surveying the damage with his business partner, Tom Gram.
The two purchased the shop from their former employer, John Rode, about eight years ago. Willette was “the new guy,” having worked at Rode’s since 2001; Gram had been there “41 years, since the day I graduated from MATC with a degree in photography.”
What was to be “just a summer job” turned into a way of life for Gram.
As we spoke in the devastated Uptown, where rioters smashed through storefront windows, looted businesses and set fire to buildings, Gram talked about how their corner, at 22nd Avenue and Roosevelt Road, was its own community.
There was also a community of Rode’s customers.
“Literally every day,” Gram said, “someone would say to us ‘I’m so glad you guys are here.’ Because we had our own lab, there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do. We’d always figure it out.”
Likewise, Willette “has been getting a lot of emails and calls from customers and former customers. That’s been really nice.”
During our interview Thursday, the two were actually talking with a customer; I bought a Canon AE-1 35mm camera from Rode’s in 1982, after saving up for several months. When told he probably sold me my first camera, Gram laughed and said, “I sold a lot of those AE-1s.”
Camera sales, however, weren’t what kept Rode’s in business all those years.
“We still sold cameras, but that part of the business had shrunk, with the technology changing all the time,” Willette said. “What set us apart was we had our own lab and could control the process from start to finish.”
Rode’s did school and youth sports league photos, business events, commercial photos and special family photos. What really set them apart was their ability to do photo restorations and transfer family movies to DVD and digital formats. “We could do photo developing within hours,” Willette said, “and if there was any problem, we could quickly fix it.”
The photo lab, however, is also why the business will likely not relocate.
“It would have to be a perfect space for us to reopen,” Willette said. “It’s not simple to set up a photo lab; there are a lot of steps, and it takes a lot of work.”
Asked about the future, Gram says, “I’m almost 64, so I’ll probably retire earlier than I want to and not under the terms I wanted.”
Willette, 50, has “quite a few years left to work. I haven’t had to do a resume for a long time, and I’m going to find out what it’s like to look for a job in this economy. Until then, I’ll be home, annoying my wife and daughter.”
While they ponder the future, they are also quickly getting up to speed on how to file an insurance claim and other paperwork matters.
What can’t be covered by insurance, however, is the heart and soul of a local business.
“We didn’t make a ton of money doing this,” Willette said, “but we loved it. We loved our customers.”
Rode’s was still recovering from the COVID-19 shutdown when the rioting erupted.
“We had just reopened in mid-June after being closed for a few months,” Willette said. “We were so happy to see our customers again, and now we won’t.”
“It’s devastating really,” Gram said. “This is our life’s work.”
The two are trying to stay as positive as they can and are using humor to cope, but the sadness and senselessness of the destruction permeates the scene.
“We understand the protests,” Gram said, “but why destroy these businesses?”
He shook his head surveying the ruined area — which includes the Danish Brotherhood Lodge (where his father and grandfather were members), City Kicks and other businesses — and could only sigh.
Gram, who lives close to the store, actually saw the store on fire “with flames shooting out,” he said.
Now, staring at the ruins, he’s “at a loss for words.”
The two hope to perhaps keep the sports photography part of their business going, but it won’t be the same Rode’s, the place where memories could be preserved for future generations.
Kenosha lost a business that had stood for more than a century. But, really, we lost another piece of our heart.
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