By REBECCA SCHIFFMAN
HIGHLAND PARK — The blue-and-white Frank’s camera store sign has loomed over Figueroa Street for more than three decades, above what had been a well-known, family-owned camera shop. But the brick building was sold last October and is now undergoing an extensive renovation. So, what’s going to happen to that oval Frank’s sign? Don’t worry, says the new owner. It’s going to stay where it is.
“We very much want to keep it but restore it to original condition,” said Dave Walker of Engine Real Estate, which purchased the building last year. “We would never throw it out. It’s too cool.”
So, who was Frank?
After operating a camera shop in Pasadena, Frank Vacek moved the family business to Highland Park, where in the 1970s they eventually purchased a three-level, 1928 brick building that once housed a S.S. Kresge department store, a forerunner of Kmart, in the 5700 block of Figueroa Street.
Vacek ran Frank’s Highland Park Camera with the assistance of his wife, Vera, and children, Milan and Jana. A 116-page Photographic Discount Catalog published in 1978 is packed with page after page of now vintage cameras, lenses, light meters and the shop’s own brand of dark room bottles. The front and back pages featured photos of the smiling Vacek family.
Though the family has sold off its connection to Highland Park, Milan Vacek, son of the eponymous Frank (who passed away last year at the age of 90), is glad that the Frank’s sign will remain. He still remembers designing the Frank’s logo, which he drew by hand over and over again until he was satisfied. He took inspiration from the logos for Ford Motors and the Boots British drug store chain but most of all from his grandfather’s shop in Czechoslovakia.
“My grandfather, in his leather-goods store business in the 1930’s in Prague, had used a similar type of hand-written rendition of the family surname,” said Vacek. “This was my main inspiration in making the logo, to make it look as if it could have been hand-written … on a beach or drawn with one fluid motion of a paintbrush on canvas.”
While camera technology evolved, Frank’s Highland Park Camera apparently never fully embraced the digital age, with the store in later years having become more like a warehouse of old equipment that you could dig through if you were willing, according to online reviews.
But many former customers still have fond memories about the shop and the Vacek family. Forum users at photo.net reminisced about Frank’s heyday, which one describes as in the 1970’s, “when Nikon F2a’s were THE camera.” Others recalled the model shoot contests that the store held at various locations. “The most pretty model girls were posing, photographers were crowded and shooting… and shooting …. those days are over, how sad,” writes another.
Said one former customer:
I lived in Highland Park 30 years ago, and Frank’s was my favorite store. Discount prices, big inventory, no NYC-style BS. Learned how to use fill flash at their model shoots (anyone remember Mary?), usually at an old Western-movie ranch in Agoura. Still using a Micro-Nikkor and other Nikon stuff that Milan had recommended. Frank was gruff, but the staff was great to deal with. I still think of them often ….
Rebecca Schiffman is a writer, musician and artist living in Highland Park.
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