Sunday, October 23, 2016

Frank’s Highland Park Camera is gone but its sign will live on

The former home of Frank's Highland Park Camera | Rebecca Schiffman

The former home of Frank’s Highland Park Camera | 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.

Frank’s Camera pictured before the facade sign was removed. The rooftop sign, however, will remain.

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  1. Great story. Thanks!

  2. It struck me a year or two ago as I was staring at the Franks sign from the Gold Line station and not sure why I hadn’t recalled earlier.. I bought my first camera, (a Pentax MX) from Franks from the back pages of their ad in Photography Magazine. At the age of 16,( in the late 70’s), it was the biggest purchase of my life up to that time, having recently moved to California/San Luis Obispo from the east coast, never having been Los Angeles, much less heard of Highland Park. Recalling this, and how deeply and agreeably Highland Park has become home for the last 6 years, made that refreshed sight of Frank’s sign a sweet and thankful moment.

  3. It is such a shame that it is looking more and more like the Maison Margiela and Rose Bakery deal to take over Frank’s Camera isn’t going to become a reality. Curses on John Galliano for that, or at least I assume he is the one who deserves the curses now that he is the creative director at Margiela.

  4. Frank’s Camera at one time was the largest mail order house for camera equipment in the world. My understanding is that Milan ran a branch in Prague during the 1990s. However, as noted in the article, Frank’s eventually became a victim of the digital age. I bought four Pentax K-1000 cameras at Franks over a 25 year period. Each was a replacement for one that was stolen. The last one was barely used before I went digital in 2006. Those cameras recorded much of the local landscape, much of which is now lost. Just a note: the original business in the building was S. H. Kress & Company, not S.S. Kresge. Kress was famous as the original five and dime. All of the stores from the East Coast to Hilo, Hawaii were designed along the same basic lines, hardwood floors, hat style ceiling lights, fresh popped pop corn, lots of merchandise spread out in a emporium-style format and as much retail floor space as possible. The Highland Park building, which opened in 1928 and the building was designed by J. H. Major. Sadly, the Kress Company embarked on a major remodeling program for their stores in the 1970, in order to update their design, hoping to address flagging sales. The plan backfired, as the stores lost their original charm and did not draw in new customers. The Highland Park Store was remodeled just a couple of years before it was closed. I once worked with the man that was hired by Kress to close each of the stores. He traveled to each one of them to begin the process. Most were closed in 1980. The remaining Kress stores were sold to McCrory Stores on January 1, 1981. Most continued to operate under the Kress name until McCrory Stores went out of business in 2001. Tiendas Kress, the subsidiary chain in Puerto Rico, survived the parent company and is still in business there. The Kress Foundation, a philanthropic organization promoting art, was established by Kress in 1929 and also survives the parent company. The Highland Park store was one the first to be closed and the building was sold to Frank Vasek. I could not find any link between Kress and K-Mart.

  5. I hate to be a downer on Franks, I ve lived in HP for over 40 yrs and would from time to time shop for camera items at Franks, IMHO it was not a user friendly place to shop, Frank was always at the register and frankly he was a very arrogant guy. Thanks Mr Fisher for your insight with Kress and all that info.

  6. I got the best second hand Canon from Frank’s in the mid-70s. Eventually it was stolen and I was never able to find anything quite like it again. The photos it took were magical.


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