Kyle Depew stood in a yurt filled with pillows, his glasses fogging up a little from the cold, his fingers patting down his mohawk styled hair. Outside, a gentle flurry fell on a backyard already carpeted with soft snow. Years ago, he used this same yurt as his bedroom in an attempt to convert a two bedroom apartment into three. Depew is hyper organized and space efficient. The yurt now sat in a cozy corner in the backyard of Brooklyn Film Camera, a space beloved among New York’s photography creators.
“Film photographers are already a niche within the photographic bubble. From the beginning, I knew that it was a power we had to harness,” said Depew, who founded Brooklyn Film Camera in 2015. Prior to this leap of small-business faith, he had spent years working for the Impossible Project, a company that would go on to buy Polaroid lock, stock and barrel in 2017.
“I was doing some camera repair and artist management and just kind of learning the business of Polaroid,” shared Depew. Just before he parted ways with Impossible, Depew worked with them on a five-month project doing events across the country. Since it was all-expenses paid, he was able to save $25,000, which would be the seed money for Brooklyn Film Camera (BFC). “On that road trip, I was like ‘I’m going to do this,’” said Depew, adding, “I’m going to try this Brooklyn Film Camera idea and just gamble this 25,000 bucks that I just saved.”
Depew started small, setting up a stall at the well-known Brooklyn Flea Market, where he said he was encouraged by the interest and sales. From there they moved to a basement room in an artists’ collective, rent free, in exchange for janitorial services. BFC was moved to larger and larger spaces until they finally landed at their sprawling two-level brick-and-mortar store on Grand Street in Williamsburg a year and a half ago. Along the way, their team had grown to 13, including Depew. It was finally a full-fledged small business project.
At the heart of BFC is a Polaroid mini store. Depew said that they are only one of two authorized Polaroid stores anywhere in the world that specialize in repairing their flagship foldable cameras. His love for polaroid photography began as a 12-year-old child. Depew grew up using the family VHS camera (“to make our own Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joe videos”) and a film camera his dad gave him as a gift. But it was a polaroid and its famously instant photo printing that grabbed his imagination. “Instant gratification and a very social thing. You could take somebody’s picture at a party and give it to them and write your number on it,” shared Depew with a guffaw, adding that he was very moved by Polaroid.
This love affair became lifelong and has tied in the fortunes of BFC with Polaroid. Besides being experts on the restoration of vintage polaroids (especially the SX-70), BFC also repairs and refurbishes other film cameras of all makes and models. While they turn enough profit to keep their doors open, they’re often operating on very thin margins. “It was always financially tough,” said Depew, continuing, “It was never a business that was making a lot of money. Used camera sales simply have small margins. So our average margin is only about 32%.” To put things in context, most small businesses would operate on an average margin of a 100% markup. According to Depew, BFC gets an average of 16,500 unique orders every year, with the winter in January and February seeing a dip in footfall.
Other than finances, it wasn’t too difficult to get the business up and running with various New York City departments. “It’s an additional expense, but the city has it pretty streamlined to be able to get that stuff going,” said Depew.
The beating heart of BFC is their photo community, something that was baked into the business from the very beginning. Matt Cosby, a freelance photographer from Massachusetts, was visiting the store for the very first time. But he had been following them on Instagram for over a year and booked a hotel near BFC so he could be sure to visit and stock up on some film. “I try not to use Amazon,” said Cosby, “and I think it’s important to keep photography alive in all forms, digital and film.” BFC has over 90,000 followers on Instagram and Depew said that he always had an intentionality about creating visual content to attract visual creators along with in person events.
“We host these annual gatherings called the New York City Film Photo Gathering every summer in Prospect Park, and literally hundreds of people come,” said Depew. BFC also hosts a new film photographer starting the first Thursday of the month to showcase their work. In the summer, the backyard is used for workshops and events, or is opened up to photographers who want to hang and develop some photos. The events shift indoors when it gets colder. “I’d say on average, probably like 30 to 50 people come out for the opening parties,” said Depew, adding “We try not to focus too much on the ROI of such things. It’s really important to have real-world spaces. It feels good to be the custodian of a space that is for that.”
Kiley Nelson is an expert on polaroid aesthetic restoration with BFC. In between cutting a piece of leather to paste on a foldable camera, she shared some thoughts about why stores like BFC exist in New York City. “It’s such a creative city and photography is blooming everywhere, so it helps to repurpose things,” said Nelson, adding that it’s places like BFC, “where you can really get to know like-minded people to learn, explore and connect.”
Depew said that while they are currently looking for financial support, he is very happy with the way that the store and its work culture has shaped up, especially with a team that he trusts and feels fortunate to call friends. “I would classify the culture of Brooklyn Film Camera to be fun. We all care for one another with an investment in each other’s lives and in friendship. I’ve always really liked that,” he signed off, with this valuable insight into the private life of a small business.
Brooklyn Film Camera
855 Grand St, Brooklyn, NY 11221
Closed on Mondays. 1-7 p.m. all other days.