I realized the other day that it’s been just over forty years since I started my first full time job, at a one hour photo lab called Photo:Hour.
I’d majored in Elementary Education, to be a teacher, right in the middle of the demographic ebb between the end of the Baby Boom and the Boomers starting to have their own children. This I knew going into it. And then, the November I graduated, Proposition 2 1/2 passed, cutting property taxes, and suddenly schools were laying off teachers.
I’d seen an ad for an assistant manager position for a photo lab in January of 1982, and interviewed in the basement office of the Winter Street store with the owner, Tom Giampapa, and then… heard nothing. And then six weeks later, they called. Turns out the guy they’d originally hired had quit. Still being unemployed, I took the job.
When I started, one hour photo processing was brand new, and we were the only lab in all of New England. It also helped that Tom had a friend in the company that did the MBTA’s advertising; we had car cards in every Red and Orange line train.
For the first year, the store was crazy busy. It was Gary, the manager, Marcial, a full time employee who was great in the lab, but whose English wasn’t good enough to work the counter, an ever changing cast of part timers, Tom, and myself. Tom split his time between working the store and scouting out locations for our second store. Generally, I would open and take the 8 – 4:30 shift, and Gary would come in at 9:30 and close at 6.
I always thought of it like a photo MASH unit — meatball photography, try to do a good job, but never enough time to do as good of a job as you would like. There was never enough time to do all the maintenance needed, to run all the control strips you were supposed to, or make over all the pictures that needed it. On the other hand, I know for a fact that our work was better than a lot of other places.
Part of the problem was that the company just didn’t pay well. We paid lab techs slightly above minimum wage, but not much, so we were always losing people. It happened over and over again — we’d hire someone, get them trained, we would run fully staffed for a couple of months, and then they’d quit, and we’d be short handed again. My dominant memory is running crazy busy because we didn’t have enough people.
Besides the counter, there were three positions in the lab — film load/unload, printing, and packaging/QA. Loading the film processor was pretty easy — the hardest thing was training people NOT to put the wrong kind of film in it, and packaging the pictures up was relatively simple, and most people were able to pick up what our standards were for pictures that required a redo. But printing…. that took a while to learn, and some people never could learn to do it well, or quickly enough. You had to pull the film strip through the negative carrier, and then make a judgement about the subject of the film, and bias the exposure accordingly. A picture on the snow? Use -3 density. A picture shot on flash against a dark background? Use +5 density. You could be off by a button either way and still have an acceptable print, but beyond that, the print would either be washed out or too dark. And you had to decide fast, there was no time to agonize, and in fact, the best operators used what I called Force printing (as in “use the Force”)
As an assistant manager, I was also responsible for helping to keep the lab running properly. Every day we would run “control strips” through both the film and paper processors. These were Kodak-exposed pieces of film and photographic paper that we would run through each processor, and then read on the densitometer and compare the readings to pre-processed sample. If the control strips were within certain bounds, the process was healthy. If the plots crossed certain limits, you needed to take action, and if they were outside the outer bounds, you were supposed to stop.
We would also expose a “bullseye” print every day, using a test negative and accompanying test print. Again, we would read the result on the densitometer, and if any value was more than four points away from the standard, or if the largest difference was more that five points, we had to enter a correction into the printer, rerun the bullseye, and hope it was better.
On a monthly basis, we would check the channels for individual brands of film, and make corrections. I always hated this job. On the one hand, the work did tend to look better when the machine was in tune. On the other hand, the densitometers Tom bought were always flaky and prone to variations, so it usually took several tries to hone in.
I was just starting to feel comfortable that I had a handle on the job in early 1983. Tom had signed a lease for a store in Medford, and we planned that Gary would take that store and I would take over Winter Street. And then one morning, Gary was late. Tom came in, and went downstairs to look at the previous day’s receipts. Minutes later he was back up stairs; Gary had taken the money, left a note, and disappeared. Three weeks later, the state police came by looking for him, for what, I don’t know.
That was one of the craziest periods I can remember. We were about three weeks away from opening Medford, and suddenly, we not only had to set it up, but we had to hire and train a second manager, as well as a replacement for Marcial, who we were going to transfer to Medford. I was basically the only person who knew how to handle the machines and their set up, and I was working six days a week. This led to the My Dead Body Story.
We’d managed to hire a couple of new people to fill the manager and assistant manager slots and they were all working Winter Street, trying to learn the ropes. The Medford store had been built, the machines installed, and were up and running, but the printer needed to be programmed — the same process as above, balancing channel 00 using bulleyes, then setting up the individual channels, only all from scratch, and all at the same time. Tom called from Medford and told me to get a taxi (my first one) and head over.
As soon as I get there, we get a call from Winter Street — paper is jamming in the dryer and they can’t get it to stop jamming and I can’t talk them through it on the phone, and they’re falling behind. So I head back to Boston, get them fixed, and help them get caught up. By 4, it looks like we’re stable again, so I head back over to Medford.
Tom and I work until 10:30, sort of getting the printer balanced. He’s promised to drive me back to the Route 128 station, where my car is parked, since there’s no train service that late. He stops at a 24 hour gas station near Wellington Circle for gas, and then gets partway around the circle before his truck starts to splutter out and die — the idiot attendant had put diesel fuel in the gasoline tank. Tom manages somehow to coast back into the station, which is now closed while the attendant has a drink, and calls his wife to pick us up. It takes a while since she has to pack the kids into the back of the station wagon and then drive over to Medford.
In the meantime, Tom has discovered a petcock on the bottom of his gas tank, and decides, when his wife gets there, to have her tow us, with the petcock open, through the streets of Medford, only to find there are no others open. Defeated, he then heads back to Route 128 to drop me off. It’s about 1:30 now, the place is deserted, and I just want to get to bed since I have to be back at work at 9.
As I walk up the road to my car, I see another car coming down the road towards me. Uh oh. Is it some teenagers looking for a place to drink? Is it the police? No, it’s my mother, with the dog in the back of the car, looking for my dead body. “Get back home” she snarls; the end of a perfect day.
I was with Photo:Hour for around 17 years, which was about 16 too many. I went from store manager to district manager back to store manager to running the Hanover store myself as the company grew and then contracted. I came to really despise myself for sticking around, but I couldn’t bring myself to find another job. Jon Landy, who became the first manager of Medford, then moved back down to our big Washington Mall store in Boston and I used to discuss it; we felt the same way. “Why am I still here?”
It was a combination of things. In the beginning, Tom was holding out the possibility of promotion as the company grew. He kept telling me that once we had enough stores I would take over the job of supervising them. Eventually, I did do that, but then business took a turn for the worse, and I was back where I started.
Then there was a sense of not having any skills that anyone would want. By the mid 90’s, I’d become a decent computer user, but had no programming skills other than a little BASIC, and the development job market was harder to break into back then, or at least, it appeared to be.
Also, I was definitely fond of Tom Giampapa. He was cheap, for sure, and we were all convinced he was being penny-wise and pound-foolish by not investing in advertising and picking less than optimal locations. But he could be a hell of a lot of fun to be around. When things were going well, he had a big booming laugh, and a great sense of humor. And I always, always, felt that he was looking out for me. My last job, at Andela, the pay was great, and the benefits lavish, but I never had the sense they had their employees’ backs. For Tom, firing was a last resort, not a first.
And finally, he gave me the scope to keep the job interesting. If there was something that needed to be done, and it looked interesting, I could do it. As long as the store was running and the customers were coming in, he was happy. I wanted to do the redesign of the photo processing envelopes? He let me. I had an idea for turning a roll of edge-fogged paper, useless for customer work, into coupons? Great. In hindsight, working now where everything has to be on a ticket, and assigned to the current sprint to take it on, being able to have ideas and act on them with little interference was a wonderful thing,