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Lightning Photo to close its doors after decades in business

MIDDLEBURY — It was in 1972 that David Werle focused on transforming his enthusiasm for photography into a new business — Middlebury Darkroom at 64 Main St. He and his family followed that up in 1983 with the opening of Lightning Photo in The Centre shopping plaza, a business that would move to 111 Court St. in 2002.
But after nearly 42 years of selling a wide array of photography equipment and supplies, as well as helping generations of Middlebury-area residents bring their pictures to life, Werle will be closing up shop later this month. Changes in photo technology and customer purchasing habits, coupled with the recent celebration of his 70th birthday, have prompted Werle to end his long run as a storeowner and begin a new chapter of his life in semi-retirement.
“It’s time to retire,” Werle said on Monday. “We have made great efforts to try and keep this service alive in Middlebury by approaching a couple of other businesses. But it did not come to pass. We would still like to provide the service; so many people are unhappy that we’re closing.”
Werle was pleased that both the Middlebury Darkroom and Lightning Photo developed loyal customers during their respective runs. The family closed Middlebury Darkroom around 15 years ago, selling the Main Street building and focusing exclusively on Lightning Photo.
“As digital technology became more and more important in photography, it kept us very active with camera sales and hardware and (photo) processing,” Werle said. “We were kind of at the forefront of digital imaging when it first appeared. We were doing digital work probably before most stores in the country, to the point where Kodak was using us as consultants to help other retailers throughout the country to teach them how to market the product.”
It should be noted the Werles were not just about photography. The Middlebury Darkroom location also provided a home for a kitchen supplies shop during the late 1970s, which sold gourmet deli/kitchen items.
“We introduced the first Cuisinart and high-end cookware to Middlebury,” Werle recalled.
The kitchen supplies shop expanded into “True Confections,” which sold candy and hand-dipped Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cones. True Confections would eventually evolve into a toy store.
Werle noted the past decade or so has brought substantial changes to the photography industry, changes that have posed some challenges for retailers. For example, it’s become commonplace for people to process their own digital camera pictures on their home computers.
In its heyday, the Werles employed more than a dozen full-time workers at the two store sites. That number has dropped to two full-timers and one part-timer.
“The Internet changed the way cameras were sold,” Werle said. “The camera companies very slowly, but very clearly, wanted to do their own retailing, which made it impossible for us to profit from hardware sales, so we had to stop that.”
Lightning Photo has continued to remain relevant by offering a variety of services, including allowing people to order photo prints from their home computers for pickup at the store. Customers have been able to walk into the store with their digital cameras and use the kiosk to crop, design and order their photos as prints — including calendars and posters. The store has also provided mounting and lamination services for consumers and commercial customers.
Werle has been holding a going-out-of-business sale at Lightning Photo, which he still hopes to sell to someone to keep the service alive. He does not plan an idle retirement. He’d like to teach photography in some capacity and perhaps carry on some of the digital services out of his home.
 “What I’ll miss the most is the customer contact,” Werle said. “We’ve always enjoyed talking to people about the questions they have about what we do and what they are doing with their cameras.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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