A winter storm was brewing on Friday afternoon, and expected to bring snow and ice to the Kansas City metro area. At Gass Camera Repair, the electronic door chime rang periodically - not with the arrival of customers, but as box after box was loaded onto a trailer waiting just outside.
Since 1979, in this small shop in Mission, Kan., Clarence Gass repaired cameras of all shapes and sizes. Friday was his final day of business.
A 'natural curiosity' about cameras
As Clarence and his wife Betty boxed up tools on his workbench, they talked about the uncertain early days when Betty quit her job at Nazarene Publishing House to help Clarence answer the phone, so he could spend more time repairing cameras.
"We never got rich and we never made lots of money, but we sure met lots of friends who enriched our lives," said Betty, as she swept dust into a trash can. "Clarence has just always loved it. Any camera, if it doesn't work, he wants to find out why.
"And, you know, he never took a course. It was all natural curiosity, you know. Not that he hasn't read magazines or literature that they would send him, but there are not very many cameras that he could not fix."
"We’ve never had to walk the streets," joked Clarence.
"What did you keep this for?" asked Betty, holding up a sheet of clear plastic.
"Those are windows for 35 mm cameras, the counter windows. I cut them myself," Clarence said.
"I am always afraid to throw things in the trash, until I ask. I've done it in years past and it was something that he needed," laughed Betty.
Learning through experience
Just before Thanksgiving, Clarence decided that he’d taken in his final camera for repair, a Hasselblad 500 CM medium format film camera. Slowly and methodically, he turned the camera over in his hands and the air was punctuated with the click of the mechanical shutter.
At one point Clarence had six employees he'd trained himself, but now he works alone.
"There was a school, but not much of a school," said Clarence. "In this business, you learned as you experienced it. You started out low. I gave the kids really cheap cameras, like Instamatics and I said, 'Now take it completely apart and then put it back together.' A lot of them failed."
Gass has seen a lot of changes in cameras over the years, not all of them good. The plastic parts that are used today particularly plague him.
"They just don't make cameras the way they used to," said Clarence. "People still want this stuff and it still works, see? It's just beautiful."
"Have you ever seen the inside of a Canon AE-1? I've got a box of them in here (laughs). There's an AE-1; that camera has about 800 parts in it. This is what drove me insane, most of the time," he said, pointing to the exposed electronics and wires.
A well-deserved vacation
Once Clarence moves his workbench to his home in Edgerton, Kan., he plans to repair cameras in his spare time - after first taking a vacation with his wife.
"We'd like to have some time together. I’d like to take her on a trip, maybe to Hawaii, or the Bahamas, or Tonganoxie," said Clarence with a laugh.
"Oh, look at my hands," Betty said, wiping her hands on a paper towel.
"Well, I'm tired enough, too. Let's go home. We'll start again early in the morning," said Clarence as he took off his apron and laid it on the counter.
Betty walked to the door and turned the open sign over for the final time. Gass Camera Repair, after 35 years, was officially closed.