Farewell to Showcase: An Interview with Bob Khoury
After 40 years, Showcase Inc. Photo & Video, along with the Showcase School, closed its doors at the end of February.
While the Showcase School will be reopening under the name Atlanta School of Photography, the company as a whole ceased operation following a long run as a staple of Atlanta photography and filmmaking. Showcase founder Bob Khoury sat down with Oz for a retrospective on Showcase and to address the core issues facing similar Atlanta businesses.
Start back at the beginning: what kicked off Showcase in Atlanta?
40 years ago, we started in a flea market where the Lindbergh Marta station is right now. It was an Arlan’s Department Store, and they went out of business, so the guy [who owned the flea market] bought the building, put in 300 booths, and that’s where we started. There were at the time two chains in town: Wolf and Alan’s, and they were both starting out. Because they had the consumer [film] business locked up, we decided to go after the professional business, and that’s how we started.
Can you recall a point where you really had to pull up from the ground?
We were on an upward trend all the way until 2008 when the recession hit. We had to tighten our belt and cut overhead, but we didn’t let anyone go at the time. Salaries were cut across the board, top to bottom, and we struggled through that and made it through 2009. Things started to come back around 2010, but that was the hardest time we had until recently. We’ve seen a decline in business over the past three years, simply because—and this is what I consider to be the crux of this interview—we have an unsustainable business model at this time.
Why is your business model unsustainable?
Brick-and-mortar just can’t make a go of it anymore. They can if you can keep overhead low—ours is not, we have a lot of employees that make a very decent living here who are knowledgeable and can educate the consumer. The consumer isn’t willing to pay for that, though, and unfortunately business has been dwindling.
The way we try to do business isn’t viable anymore. Most people would just as soon buy everything over their phones and assume they know everything about everything, and therefore the knowledge we have to impart isn’t that important.
The rise of ready information and undercutting price is viewed as more important?
Exactly, and they don’t value personal relationships, which we try to establish with our customers. It just doesn’t work anymore. We see a lot of show-rooming now: people come in with their phones, look at a product, and find the cheapest price. Not to say we can’t compete on price: we can, and we can convince customers that in some cases if the price is higher that they’re getting value for their money. What we cannot compete with is the fact that we have to charge sales tax, while our competitors out of New York don’t have to. Right now, that gives them an 8% advantage, soon to be 8.9% when the taxes go up in this city.
This is my soapbox issue: something has to be done about this. There was an article written in the AJC about a state representative addressing this issue and wanting to do something, but it cannot be done on a state level. It has to be done on a federal level. At this time, there’s a bill that has been passed by the Senate called the Marketplace Fairness Act; the House came up with their own bill when it got kicked over to them, it got sent to committee and now it can’t get out. Because it’s been viewed as instituting a new tax by Congress, when it’s not new at all: it’s an existing tax that’s not being collected. One of the things I want to do after we close the business is find a lobbying group I can latch onto and make a presence known in DC to get something done about this.
You want to make sure that what’s happening here doesn’t happen to other businesses?
Do you have a specific plan in place?
I’m going to try to latch on with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but I have to first determine what their stance is on this issue. They represent a lot of different factions: they’re representing people who are benefitting from this sales tax issue, too. And the reason it exists, by the way, is because in 1992 the Supreme Court issued a ruling stating that interstate commerce was exempt from taxation. They thought at the time when the Internet was in its infancy that it’d be too onerous for sellers to collect tax for all 50 states and then remit that sales tax. At the time it would have been. Today, it’s just a push of a button.
They couldn’t see how internet sales would grow in this country?
They had no idea, and now it’s the 800lb gorilla in the room that has to be addressed. Hopefully I can be instrumental in that.
Over the past 40 years, do you have any favorite memories that stick out?
My customers. Back in the late 70s/early 80s the professional photo community in this town was very tight-knit. It was a great time to be in business with these people, and they’re my favorite memories. To me it’s funny, but some of the demands made upon us have been hilarious [without giving specific examples]. Strange expectations where I just have to laugh. Some of my customers have been the most amusing people that I have ever witnessed.