DOWNTOWN — Don Flesch is known for passing out little snacks to his customers.
“Grab a chocolate,” Flesch reminds them on their way out.
Now, the 73-year-old is back in action behind the counter at Central Camera’s store, which reopened at 230 S. Wabash Ave. in March after being looted and burned down during 2020’s civil unrest after police murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis. First opened in 1899 by Flesch’s grandfather, the store attracts shoppers from around the world looking for unique camera finds and in-person service.
The May 2020 fire, which started in the basement, took about 30 firefighters and six hours to put out. Only about 50 items were salvageable out of the shop’s collection of 10,000 items.
It was a total loss, but it was no comparison to the loss of Floyd’s life “and the countless other Black lives lost,” Flesch said at the time.
After the smoke cleared, Flesch and his staff almost immediately started selling what was left on the sidewalk in front of the shop. They eventually moved the shop into a temporary space next door.
Chicagoans rallied around Central Camera’s staff, donating nearly $230,000 to a GoFundMe campaign organized by Flesch’s daughter and an employee. The money helped Flesch rebuild the shop and its inventory.
Flesch remembers a donation for $1,899, commemorating the year the business was founded. As the donations poured in, he was brought to tears, he said.
Flesch said he hopes one day he can personally thank each person who donated.
“‘Wow’ was the most common word I used in the last year … and I still use it. It’s become my mantra,” Flesch said.
‘Our Store Is Like A Museum, A History Of Photography’
Hanging on the shop’s newly painted white walls are photos from Chicago’s history alongside shots of the shop’s old interior. Two photographs of Flesch’s father and grandfather were destroyed in the fire, but they’ve been replaced by other photos the family was able to salvage and bring in from Flesch’s home.
Flesch has served generations of customers, some who came through the shop when it was run by his father.
Central Camera has had three locations: The first opened in 1899 at 31 E. Adams St. It relocated inside the Palmer House around 1907, and the business moved to its current location in 1929.
“Our store is like a museum, a history of photography,” Flesch said. “Over the years I’ve waited on so many people that are second-, third- and fourth-generation customers, which is really fun.”
Timothy Hoare, a Hyde Park resident, met his wife at Central Camera in the ’80s. He moved out of Chicago for a time, only returning to the city about nine months ago to retire. Hoare was thrilled to see the store reopened after hearing what happened in 2020.
“I was stunned to hear about what had happened, but I’m so happy that this place is still here and to still have a resource like this,” Hoare said.
The store also continues to attract new customers, including Anthony Rusk, who visited for the first time Wednesday to buy his first camera.
“The staff that helped me was so helpful and genuinely kind, helping me make an informed decision rather than just picking something,” Rusk. said. “The Downtown [area] is so corporatized, so it’s hard to find things that actually have a heart to them, and I could definitely feel [the heart] in there.”
Central Camera is open 10 a.m.-3p.m. Mondays, Wednesday, Fridays and Saturdays.
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