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Focus Locus

by Keith Morrill

This father-and-son team maintains the right image

Robert St. MarieRobert Ste. Marie, the owner of Green Mountain Camera in Waterbury Center, stands outside his shop with an old Century studio camera made by Eastman Kodak. It sits on a sailor’s chest from the 1850s.

Robert St. Marie and his son, John, have shopkeeping in their blood. Bob’s uncle used to own Brown’s Pharmacy in Barre, and his cousin is the owner of the eponymous Ste. Marie’s Market in Swanton. Before that, his family owned another Ste. Marie’s Market in North Troy for four generations. Bob experienced his first snapshot of shop life when he worked there for a few years in high school.

As Bob tells it, that ancestry has inspired and informed how they’ve built their business, Green Mountain Camera, on the Waterbury-Stowe Road in Waterbury Center, where they offer an extensive inventory, competitive pricing, and expert advice.

“This is a general store for photography,” says Bob. “We carry a little bit of everything.” This comes as a surprise to new customers who, he says, operate under the conception that to find a truly diverse selection of cameras, they have to shop online. That’s because it’s mostly true, he continues.

“You rarely see well-stocked camera stores. Most of the camera stores have a limited supply of maybe a few point-and-shoot digitals and a few SLRs, and they don’t carry much in the way of used stuff; or their focus is on photofinishing, framing — that’s where they make their money.”

He posits that Green Mountain Camera is different.

“Our focus is on equipment,” says Bob. “We do everything else, but that’s our main focus.” Customers can expect to find a wide variety of anything related to photography: both new and used cameras, equipment, and accessories, including everything from camera bags to frames, all right there in the store.

John Ste. MarieJohn Ste. Marie, Bob’s son, owns 25 percent of the business. He has been working to grow the shop’s online presence, which accounts for about half of their business.

“Our biggest restraint is space,” John admits. “It’s dedicated entirely to retail.” Despite these constraints, Green Mountain Camera offers a variety of in-store services, including custom mattes and digital printing and restoration.

“If we don’t do it in-house,” adds Bob, “we coordinate the services.” For example, customers can drop off their cameras for repairs, or their 35mm film for processing. The Ste. Maries turn largely to Vermont vendors and tradesmen to provide those services. It saves space, cuts operating costs, and gives their customers one more reason to come back.

Although there are extensive offerings in-store, this constitutes only about half of Green Mountain Cameras sales. The rest of the product is moved online — a side of the business John has been responsible for growing.

Between website and store, things are really starting to pay off. “We’ve kind of reached a tipping point now, where our online sales are taking off and local sales are starting to grow,” says Bob.

Every year since opening in 2005, the Ste. Maries have doubled the amount of product they’ve moved, and this year they anticipate tripling it, even with the ailing economy — “unless we have a really bad Christmas,” Bob adds.

William CountrymanEveryone who works at Green Mountain Camera is a photographer. William Countryman, full-time retail sales associate, is an avid amateur.

He attributes this to smart moves early on while in the planning stages, before selling his first camera. “People kept telling us, when we first started looking at how we would operate, ‘You have to get into film processing,’” recalls John. At the time that was how camera shops generated the majority of their income, but for the Ste. Maries it presented immediate problems. Not only did the equipment take up too much space — and came with a six-figure price tag — but perhaps even more important was the future of the film-based industry.

“We realized there was a shift happening, and really, we needed to focus on the other side of that shift,” he recalls. That shift, of course, was the arrival of digital technology. “We’ve only seen growth due to that, as digital has completely taken over.”

To help meet the needs of their growing business, the Ste. Maries enlist the help of two employees: full-timer Bill Countryman and part-timer Kyle Green. Both are avid photographers — Kyle is a professional, in partnership with Peter Miller.

Having everyone in the shop — the Ste. Maries included — into photography allows them to offer expert advice to customers. “People know that they can talk to somebody who can direct them to the right equipment,” says Bob. “We try to educate, especially for people who aren’t computer-savvy.”

One such customer who says he’s benefited from Green Mountain Camera’s service is Dennis Curran, a professional photographer living in Waitsfield. Extolling the store and its staff, Curran says, “They’ve been great. I started dealing with them last December. I traded in some equipment; they give as good as or better prices than a lot of the mail-order places give. Their customer service was just over the top. They have a very knowledgeable staff.

“For me, it’s great to be able to buy locally in Vermont — to have a professional place to buy equipment so close by.”

Green Mountain Camera has had its challenges along the way. The Ste. Maries had to establish credibility before people were willing to purchase an expensive piece of equipment from them. Often people would come in and use their expertise, only to leave and purchase their cameras online.

The Ste. Maries say most people assumed they couldn’t compete with the big chains or online vendors, even though Green Mountain Camera was competing online. Additionally, their location has made it difficult to attract customer attention. While it’s close to a lot of big tourist attractions, people often drive by and never see it. To remedy that, they’ve targeted much of their marketing to letting people know their exact location.

Before opening the store, Bob was a practicing architect. Although his family is from Vermont, he was born in Schenectady, N.Y., where his parents had relocated for his father’s job with General Electric. After his father’s death when Bob was 15, he, his mother, and his two sisters moved back to Vermont to be closer to family. Bob went to Sacred Heart High School in Newport. He attended Vermont Technical College before transferring to Ball State University in Indiana, where he graduated in 1978 with a degree in architecture.

Unable to find work back in Vermont, he followed the job trail to Florida, where he worked as an architect for 10 years, earning a national award for a restoration project he did in downtown West Palm Beach. In the late ’80s, he moved back to Vermont and tried to start his own practice, but the country was still mired in a recession and he had no professional contacts in the area. He worked for several architects, including Dan Morris, Julian Goodrich, and Leonard Duffy. Before opening Green Mountain Camera, he managed architectural and engineering services at Fletcher Allen Health Care for 12 years.

Bob, 56, resides in Waterbury with his wife, Claudette, his high school sweetheart whom he married in 1970 just after graduation. They have two other grown children, Jeremy and Renee. Bob says he spends a lot of free time pursuing and practicing woodworking around the house.

John, 23, was born in Vermont, and graduated pre-med with a concentration in biology and philosophy from Boston University in 2007. He decided to hold off on medical school and turn his attention to business full time. He resides in Burlington, where he spends his off-time cooking — something he says his girlfriend thoroughly enjoys. His father is quick to add that he is also a photographer and an artist in other mediums.

Both father and son spend a lot of their free time snapping photos, or expressing their creative sides through drawing. Samples of their work hang on the walls inside Green Mountain Camera. For now, they’re content to run the shop in Waterbury Center, but that doesn’t mean they’re not looking to expand.

“We’re looking for opportunities to open other stores,” says Bob. “I don’t think we’re really ready right now, but, when we are, we want to look for other locations.” •

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