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After 150 years, Thornton Richards to close

Thornton Richards Camera House Ballarat, a business which has roots stretching back 150 years, will close its doors for the last time as a photo store in August.

Thornton Richards
After 150 years in business, Sue and Gerrard Lewis will finally close the doors on Thornton Richards Camera House in August.

Thornton Richards was established in Sturt Street, Ballarat as a photography studio back in the Victorian Goldrush year of 1872. Its has been in the family of the current owners, Sue and Gerrard Lewis, for 69 years. (Industry people of a certain vintage will recall Merv Lewis, Sue and Gerrard’s father, with considerable affection and respect.)

The Sturt Street premises changed from being a photographic studio to a commercial photographic lab in the 1970s, and then evolved into its current iteration as Thornton Richards (the names of the two first owners) Ballarat Camera House. There is still a photographic studio on the first floor.

It’s a substantial shop, 380 square metres in total, with the retail store, (including the ‘kiosk lounge’ pictured below right) accounting for 140 square metres. Gerrard and Sue embarked on a major re-fit just four years ago.

From the start of this year, the Lewis’s have made a concerted but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to sell the store. This included the production of an ‘impressive but not effective’ 34-page prospectus document.

‘The store will close,’ said Gerrard. ‘We have tried to sell the business as a going concern but were unable to find a buyer.’

‘On behalf of the Board, staff and all our Camera House members, we are indeed sadden to see the closing of one of the oldest camera stores in the country,’ David Burlew, managing director Camera House-Raleru Ltd, told Inside Imaging. ‘This business has been in Gerrard and Sue’s family for I think nearly 70 years and has been an excellent example of specialty retailing, delivered through local expertise.

‘I know that Gerrard and Sue are now looking to the next chapter of their lives and we wish them all the very best.’

The news that the only specialty photographic outlet in Ballarat, a regional city of over 150,000 and home to the Ballarat Foto Biennale, attracted no interest will be met with consternation from other specialist photo retailers around Australia. Turnover of the retail outlet alone is over $1 million, with the lab and the studio making further significant contributions. Even through 2020, it was a profit-generating business.

‘Our business began 149 years ago on the goldfields and has constantly changed and morphed into what it is today. It is the oldest camera business in Australia and possibly the world. It is sad to be closing it down. What else can we say?’

While both Gerrard and Sue are around retirement age, rising costs and shrinking margins also had a major influence on the decision to try to sell up.

‘The main reason we are closing is the rising cost to do business, with a decreased margin across the hardware range,’ Gerrard explained. ‘The suppliers we deal with are facing increasing pressure to drop margin to compete, and it has become a race to the bottom on price.

Sue and Gerrard’s experience has parallels with Tibor and Nora Szopory at Camden Photo Centre. Also nudging retirement age, they have been trying to sell their profitable photo store and studio for over six months without success. We have also seen the ‘jewel in the crown’ of photo retailing in Australia, Michaels in Melbourne, close its doors in the last six months.

Regional photo stores were to some extent protected from the race-to-the-bottom online discounting which has plagued the specialist channel, but the steadily increasing acceptance of shopping online, supercharged by the Victorian Covid lockdowns, changed the retailing landscape dramatically in less than 12 months.

‘The customers have a huge market from which to choose products – anywhere in the world – and if we can’t match the larger business models we can’t compete. Trading has been steadily decreasing in turnover and margin.

The repeated Victorian lockdowns have clearly played a role: ‘The Covid issue was not as bad as first feared in 2020, but now it has hit with a vengeance and we are well down on previous years.

‘The uncertainty of lockdowns and the fact that Victoria has been locked down so long and so often’ has also had a wearing effect.

The decimation of specialty retail sector is not limited to the photo channel. The plethora of For Lease and For Sale signs in shopping centres around the state following rolling lockdowns attest to their profound impact.

Sue and Gerrard’s lease is up in August, and future plans center on retirement. ‘We are both retiring. Sue is at the retiring age and I’m 60,’ said Gerrard. ‘We don’t have any further business plans at the moment.’

While it would have been a better result for Raleru (CH ‘head office’), the photo enthusiasts and professional photographers of Ballarat, the photo industry in general, and of course Sue and Gerrard themselves if the store was still helping provide critical mass for a shrinking photo specialist sector, they step away with positive feelings about their decades ‘behind the photo counter’.

‘We have had a wonderful relationship with all our local and industry suppliers over the years,’ said Gerrard. ‘That would include all our major brands, and we could not have made it this far without being part of the Camera House family.

‘We have had a great journey and made many lasting friendships. We both have no regrets and have met and been guided by some fantastic mentors in the industry.’

Any tips for the future for those still ploughing the photo specialty field? ‘We need to embrace the younger generation and adapt to their new shopping styles with all the technology and marketing at our disposal.

‘I have found over the last five years that the gap from older retailing models to the new has broadened,’ Gerrard concluded.













  1. Stefan Stefan June 15, 2021

    Calling in on Thornton Richards was always a pleasure. Ballarat Cup Days and dinners at the
    Mid City with the “Basil Faulty” waiter are memories I’ll treasure forever. How we laughed.

    Thanks Sue, enjoy your retirement.

  2. Duncan Dodd Duncan Dodd June 16, 2021

    Sad to see another Photographic store of this calibre and reputation close its doors. They were such good supporters of the wholesalers and gave much back themselves to the Photographic community.
    The end of an era.
    Best wishes for the future Sue & Gerrard.

  3. Tony Steele Tony Steele June 16, 2021

    Thanks Gerrard & Sue for some great memories over the years. You were always very supportive when I first became a rep at Canon back in the 80’s and I was glad that we were able to support you at your wedding photography event when I was at Nikon more recently. It was a shock to read this article today as it is sad to lose your business as well as Michaels in the same year. I will miss your enthusiasm and humour in the industry and hope that your next projects are equally as successful.

  4. Noel Bentley Noel Bentley June 16, 2021

    It saddens me to think another Camera House is closing. The Lewis family certainly provided a long service to the people of Ballarat.

    May you both enjoy you well earned retirement

  5. Paul Clayton Paul Clayton June 16, 2021

    Two of the nicest people you’ll ever meet!
    Winners of the Camera House of the year and bloody good retailers.
    Sina and I wish you both, Sue and Gerard, the very best in retirement.

  6. Ben Boardman Ben Boardman June 16, 2021

    Sad to hear. I called on the store in the late 60’s when I worked for C.R. Kennedy and later as the proprietor for Mini-log Photo Processors. Who would have thought that the photo industry would disappear in our life time.

  7. Peter Charles Rose Peter Charles Rose June 16, 2021

    Unfortunately , not surprising, but very sad news non the less. Merv was a strong Camerahouse supporter and a delightful man .Sue was a gem to deal with, and appeared to have fun in business ,whilst being highly regarded by all. I did not know Gerrard as well, however he must have had the “Lewis” strengths.
    The sad part is that there was not a “buyer” (as has been the case with other recent photo store closures).
    The message ,regrettably appears very clear!
    Enjoy the next phase Sue and Gerrard.
    Best wishes
    Peter Rose

  8. Peter Cosham Peter Cosham June 16, 2021

    Sad news indeed as another icon of the photo industry closes its doors. I have fond memories of Merv and Sue in my early days in Camera House and wish both Sue and Gerrard every happiness for the next stage in their lives.
    Kind Regards and Best Wishes,
    Peter cosham.

  9. John Rule John Rule June 16, 2021

    I’ve known Sue & Gerrard for many years. They’re fantastic, honest, down to earth genuine people and true Photo Industry professionals. Great supporters & open minded.

    Extremely well respected in the pinnacle historic Ballarat community and within the industry. One of the best run Photo specialist stores in the industry. They’re achievements are second to none and will be truly sadly missed by many. Including myself.

    Guys, hold your head high. Reflect on the many incredible years & your outstanding achievements throughout that time. Enjoy the well-earned retirement and you know that always welcome by “our camp fire”.

    Kindest Regards
    John & the Polaroid / Brands Team

  10. John and Deb Ralph John and Deb Ralph June 16, 2021

    Gerrard and Sue – thing just wont be the same at the Camera House events without you guys. Even though are stores are far apart, we have benefit from the Camera House family and made friends all over Australia. Gerrard is right in that we have to incorporate the younger generations into our retail mix.
    Enjoy your retirement and we’ll look you up next time we are passing

  11. Luke Bulley Luke Bulley June 16, 2021

    Wishing Sue and Gerrard all the best for the next chapter of their lives. Reading this story is also a little daunting given I run another Camera House store which is 3 generations- 50+ years old and yes specialty retail is getting hard. For those who read this please support local and the little guy to ensure the small family business that is Australia continues.

  12. Sue Lewis Sue Lewis June 18, 2021

    Thanks heaps every one for the lovely comments. I have had a fantastic working career. I have made so many great friends and memories and had a lot of fun too.
    Thank you for your contribution to my great life

  13. John Swainston John Swainston June 20, 2021

    A sad day indeed for Photo enthusiasts everywhere, and especially for Sue and Gerard. One of our proudest days in wholesaling at Maxwell is when we won the Merv Lewis Award as supplier of the year which Sue presented. It is a tribute to all in the Thornton Richards business that it has remained relevant and contemporary right to the end. Thank you for decades of great service and for being so good humoured. Wishing you a great next chapter in life.

  14. Julie Heron Julie Heron July 21, 2021

    Gerrard, Sue and staff. Thanks for all your wonderful service and some great conversations over the years, especially (but not exclusively) in the last couple of years. I am very sorry to see you are closing, its such a loss to photographers and to Ballarat as a whole.

  15. Jude Martin Jude Martin December 2, 2021

    Devastated… I drove down Sturt St earlier this week and noticed the shop had closed. So sorry to see this has occurred and just read online your story, Sue and Gerard. I loved coming in and always appreciated your advice, expertise, willingness to help and your warm, friendly manner. Your story is one of success and amazing service to Ballarat and the wider community. I always had great pleasure in sharing my photos and my story of scrapbooking as well as writing books with photos enclosed. You were always interested and supportive. Please enjoy your next phase of life, and a healthy, relaxing and happy retirement. Best wishes always…

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