By DAN SMITH
Gordon Ewald can cite the day and date exactly: April 12, 1999, almost 50 years to the day after his father, Tink Ewald, opened the first Ewald-Clark camera store in Roanoke. That's the day it was sold to national chain Ritz Camera.
It was, he says, the result of "a feeding frenzy" between Ritz and Wolf camera chains, the nation's largest, who "gobbled up all the local stores and small chains." Ewald-Clark had become something of a Roanoke Valley institution by 1999 with six stores. I recall that when I was with The Roanoke Times in the 1970s, our photo department sent out color film for development to Ewald-Clark because we didn't have the proper equipment and newspapers were using more and more color all the time then.
Wolf and Ritz, owned by cousins David Ritz (a third generation owner) and Chuck Wolf, were caught in the middle of a war between Kodak and Fuji for market share, says Ewald, now a flight instructor for Falwell Aviation in Roanoke. Wolf was loyal to Kodak and Ritz to Fuji, he says. "It was a global battle to the death" between the photography giants. At this moment, Ritz is in bankruptcy (closing all its Western Virginia stores) and five years ago Wolf filed for bankruptcy (owing Kodak millions) and, irony of ironies, Ritz jumped in and bought Ritz, says Ewald.
"We saw it coming," says Gordon Ewald today. "We were going to have to have a capital investment of the equivalent of 100 percent of our worth to adjust to the needs of a digital shop." In addition, Ewald had expanded aggressively at the end of the 1990s and had bought a lot of equipment based on film and paper photography. That would be of little use in a digital world.
Ewald, a good photographer, still uses film. But he's one of a fading breed. "Nine years ago," he says, "I saw the scale tipping toward digital and it has gone fast."
Ewald says that "six weeks ago, we were advised of the Ritz bankruptcy" because the Ewald family still serves as a landlord for one location "and I noticed that Ritz owns Boater's World, a boat supply company. I took it from the notice that Ritz wants to sell that company and save the camera stores."
Ewald is the former president of the Dixie Division of the Photo Markers Association and vice president of the International Division and he ponders: "I wonder what a convention looks like today."