After 28 years of business in Duluth, First Photo is closing its doors next month.

Owners Mike and Cathy Mennes are unable to keep the business at 102 E. Central Entrance running due to a combination of factors, including changes in the digital age and the stress of the coronavirus pandemic.

I talked with Mike about his 45 years of experience in the film-processing industry and how drastically the market has changed in that time. He told me he was never in the photo business for the money, but he never expected to see it end like this.

“It’s funny how fast things change,” he said. “The margins have never been big, but when you were one of the only avenues to turn to, it was worthwhile.”

Mennes started First Photo in 1992 with Don Martens after working in a film-processing lab for 17 years. First Photo has offered photo prints, cameras, accessories and classes, although the products and processes have changed over the years. It was voted one of the top four camera stores in Minnesota by WCCO News in Minneapolis in 2012.

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He reflected on when digital photography was first introduced. It was a time when film quality was becoming quite advanced, and digital quality was still extremely new.

“I was just astounded by the fact that that same core group of people that wanted film to be better and better — although it was really good — were accepting these images, because they were nowhere close to being as good as film,” Mennes said.

In hindsight, this was the beginning of the end, he said, but he made the effort to obtain the newest technology to sell to customers in the Twin Ports. He remembers being talked into buying a dozen Nikon digital single-lens reflex camera bodies at an electronics convention for $2,000 a piece when they first hit the market.

“The whole plane ride back I'm going, ‘God, did I blow it? That’s a lot of money on one camera model.’ Before I could blink an eye, I sold all 12 of them.”

But as interest in digital cameras picked up, so did the availability of products online. It became a slippery slope for Mennes — it wasn’t profitable to buy too much inventory if someone would choose an online seller instead, so when a customer was looking for a product and First Photo didn’t have it, they weren’t likely to go back the next time they needed a part.

Lately, film has become less popular as digital photography became the norm, especially with the introduction and constant improvement of cell phone cameras. Mennes mostly develops film from people in their late 20s or early 30s discovering film and having fun, or film that was found in a basement or forgotten box.

Like many other businesses, the pandemic was the final straw for Mennes. Volume dropped by more than 30%, and he stopped filing for Paycheck Protection Program small-business loans because he knew it wouldn’t be enough to save him.

He will stop processing photo orders at the end of March, and will stay open for the first couple of weeks in April to sell any last inventory. He also said he has a supply of countless photo orders people placed and never picked up over the years — so if your order is waiting for you, this is your last chance to go get it.

For Mennes, the best part of owning First Photo has been the customers. He mourns the loss of not only his business, but the friendships that he’s made with people he may not see anymore when First Photo closes its doors for good.

“You got to see their lives unfold. Through pictures, you saw people get married, have kids, buy houses, their kids grow up, their kids getting married and have kids. It’s funny, it’s both heartwarming and heartbreaking,” Mennes said.

Laura Butterbrodt covers health and business for the Duluth News Tribune. Contact her at 218-723-5320 or lbutterbrodt@duluthnews.com.