Remembering Altman Camera 40 Years Later

Remember Altman Camera? This year marks the 40th anniversary of Altman’s closing. Why was it important? Because when it closed in May of 1975, Altman’s was the largest camera store in the world. And Altman’s stocked everything. Not just a lot of stuff, everything.

Altman Camera was the Disneyland of camera stores. (I should know, I worked there.) Four floors, 30,000 square feet of photographic paradise nestled between the Chicago Public Library and the EL tracks at 129 N. Wabash. The phone number was ANdover 3-0749.

Altman Camera was owned by Ralph and Lillian Altman, and some of the smartest camera people in the world worked there. Many of them went on the have long, productive careers in the photo industry, including Bob Moy (Pentax), Don Winkler (Helix), Len Olson (Dot Line), Dennis Turyna (Brandess), Mark Hertzberg (Racine Journal Times), Randy Wallace (Calumet), Tak Komai (Hitachi), George Podowski (U of C) and a slew of others. I apologize to those whose names I can’t remember. I mean, it’s only been four decades!

Even more remarkable than the breadth of the inventory Altman carried was their well-deserved reputation for being 100% trusted. Customers sent us blank personal checks and asked us to fill in the amount. Can you imagine doing that today?

Ralph Altman, who died 13 years ago this month at the age of 84, often told me how he started his camera business with $1000. He followed the classified ads and went to peoples’ homes and bought cameras which he then advertised, again in the classifieds. He never lost his love for classified ads, because even when his store was on top, Ralph still advertised in the classified sections of Modern Photography and Popular Photography and some Chicago newspapers, and the listings looked like this:

Only EPOI sells more Nikons than Altman Camera Co. 129 N Wabash.

If you are too young to know the relationship between EPOI and Nikon, then you’re way too young to remember Altman’s. Too bad. I think you would have liked the place.

Hey reader—if you ever shopped at Altman’s, or especially if you ever worked there, please comment about your experiences on Shutterbug’s Facebook page. Find this story over on FB and comment. Thanks!

—Jon Sienkiewicz

lenertolson's picture

Minolta SRT101 w/1.7 lens and case: 179.95
Would you like a UV filter with that?

Jon Sienkiewicz's picture

Hi Len,

I'll take my 101 with a 1.4 but you can talk me into buying a Honeywell flash.


feindave's picture

I just somehow ran across this article two years after it was written. I worked at Altman's for about a year, from the fall of 1974 until the store closed in May 1975. The author of the article was my boss. I loved working there and still use the knowledge I gained while working there. I'm all digital now but still have the Nikon F2 I bought while working there and some other analog bits and pieces. The closest thing to Altman's I have seen in the last forty years is B&H Photo in NYC...and it just doesn't feel the same as Altman's where everybody was just obsessed with one thing: cameras. B&H is a great store but sells many things besides cameras.

Skyhak727's picture

Altman's was so much more than a giant camera store. Still cameras were Ralph's first and lifelong passion but the store had an entire floor dedicated to cine, sound and lighting, another floor of the best darkroom equipment ever assembled and a dedicated department selling view cameras. No other single store or chain ever came close to being what Altman's was.
It was a museum of sorts. source of information, education and a major center of progressive photographic equipment marketing.
I worked there for a number of years as a manager of the darkroom department. Looking back on a career which spanned 4 different industries, working at Altman's were some of the happiest days of my life. I learned all sorts of things which propelled me into media and ultimately into self employment in health care.
A wonderful place to have worked and many many fond memories of people, making great deals, special customers and being part of a team which stayed in front of the photographic retail industry.

saglaser's picture

Disneyland of camera stores indeed! Every time I visited Chicago and had a chance I'd stop in there. Even when far too broke to buy anything I'd go just to breathe the air. I swear it was laced with photographic joy. I've thought about the place fondly over the years and just now decided to see what mentions I could find on Google. That brought me here.

Alphonse_45's picture

Who recalls Selwyn Schwartz, Tony Link and Mel (surname escapes me) but I seem to recall he lived in Skokie and he was balding). And then there was Jean who had a workbench right behind the sales floor to the south, behind a short wall of camera equipment. Her's was the responsibility for cleaning up used equipment that had been taken in trade. Recall her as being a ginger who was really proud of her work. I still remember being shocked to see that her main cleaning fluid was Hoppe's #9 -- a product famed in the gun trade for more than a century. Those were some fine folks indeed, as was Ralph Altman himself. Arnie Coons is my real name. Alphonse is just the handle. :-) Employed there 1966-1967 until the commute from NW Indiana became too much.