After a hard-fought effort in the past couple of years to keep it afloat, Morris Studio owner Neal Thomason has decided to close the business that has been on Main Street in Southampton Village for 125 years.
The Morris Studio began as a photography studio and evolved since then as technology has advanced, but Mr. Thomason said Friday that the mom-and-pop business just couldn’t compete with big box stores and internet sellers anymore. A sign was hung in the window on Wednesday last week advertising a closing sale, and next came an outpouring of well-wishers, lamenting the closure, which is slated for March 10.
The business’s namesake, George W. Morris, opened the Morris Studio in 1892 above a Main Street millinery shop, according to local historian Mary Cummings, before moving across the street to its present location, 72 Main Street, in 1898.
“George was here to a ripe old age,” Mr. Thomason said, noting the store has photos of the original owner dating back to when he first opened the business, and when he was up there in years.
His sons, Wilton and Douglas, later ran the business.
Mr. Thomason explained that his father, Jim Thomason, took over from Doug Morris in a smooth transition: Jim worked for Mr. Morris for a few years, then bought the business, and Mr. Morris stayed on a few years as an employee.
Mr. Thomason is not exactly sure what year his father bought the business, but he’s 28 years old now and he knows it happened before he was born. He inherited the business in 2014 when his father died at age 66. His mother, Carol Thomason, predeceased his father in 2011 at 63 years old.
The Morris Studio has been a second home for the Sag Harbor resident his whole life, and he’s worked there for 14 years.
“I remember when I was young, before I actually started working here, that all the display cases in the front used to be cameras,” Mr. Thomason said.
But over time, it became more and more difficult to stock cameras, or even camera supplies, and developing film was eventually outsourced.
“The digital age sort of spelt the downfall for the cameras for us,” he said, explaining that the Morris Studio can’t afford to carry digital cameras. “We can’t get them at the prices that the box stores can.”
Over the decades, the Morris Studio turned to other services and retail offerings, such as framing and art supplies, and art classes were tried in recent years, but never took off.
The art supply side of the business eventually began to suffer, like camera sales, with the rise of big box stores and the internet.
Things have only gotten worse for the Morris Studio recently.
“It was a very hard summer … honestly the worst summer I’ve experienced since being here,” Mr. Thomason said.
There were window shoppers, but not a lot of sales, he said. “We see a lot of people checking prices and buying online. There’s a lot of that. We try to stay competitive with the online prices but its just not possible with what we buy the stuff for.”
Some potential customers have asked if the store matches Amazon prices, he noted, explaining, “Matching Amazon prices is basically saying, 'Give it to me for free.'”
Framing services continued to be successful—just not enough to sustain the entire business. “People really want to see the samples, they want to hold the frame corners and they want to pick the mats,” Mr. Thomason said. “It’s a lot easier when you’re able to go into a business and actually see what you’re getting.”
The Morris Studio’s framer, Dave Kornrumph, has worked there for nearly 18 years. He said that he plans to continue working as a framer, and hopes to open his own storefront eventually, where he can also display his paintings.
The longtime film processor and developer, Mary Godfrey, has also been there for approximately 18 years.
“Over the years I created wonderful relationships with many clients, printing family photos seeing their children grow up. I’ve met many artists and photographers that have become lifelong friends. I will truly miss Morris Studio as it is an iconic part of the village,” she said.
“Jim was a mentor to me,” she continued. “Often I would go to him with questions and he always had the answer. Jim knew about every piece of photographic equipment. Jim also always had a wonderful story to tell. Often I wish that I had recorded all of his stories of the town that he had been told by Mr. Morris.
“Carol was the heartbeat of Morris Studio, she would always be running around the store with her huge smile and one of-a-kind laughter. Carol was always multitasking, helping customers with art supplies, frame orders or helping me in the back printing.”
Ms. Godfrey will remain on the local scene as a portrait, event and architecture photographer.
She and Mr. Thomason also have a coffee-table book planned: They unearthed about 40 boxes of glass-plate negatives in the old Morris Studio darkroom, and they plan to scan and develop the images, which show old Southampton.
“They probably haven’t seen the light of day in well over 20 or 30 years,” Mr. Thomason said. “They were buried in the darkroom pretty deep.”
He said they look forward to giving something back to Southampton that the village hasn’t had in so long.
As for Mr. Thomason, he has a degree in special effects and is a sculptor and sketcher. He said that once the business closes its doors, he’ll refocus on his art.
He is hoping that between now and March 10, the community will come out to peruse the store one last time.
“Honestly, I just want to see them come in and get some art supplies before we’re gone. I’ve always wanted to support the arts. I always thought it was something important, especially out here. We have such a large artist community.”
Mr. Thomason said he owns the building, and it is in contract, though he does not know what the buyer plans on doing with it.