Brian McHugh’s favourite thing about running his photography store was all people who would come to look at his window displays over the years. McHugh put a different display that changed with the holidays, and took great care to do it.
“My fun thing to do is to put in nice window [displays] that the kids like, especially at Christmastime. We usually put a train in the window and the kids can come and see it.”
And for at least one Canada Day, McHugh says they turned the window in to a Canada Day display using post-it notes.
“I think we did 7,000 of those little things to get those windows done. Something like that,” he estimates. They usually had a display for Remembrance Day too, and they always had a trolly of books out for donations to go toward the Lisaard and Innisfree hospices. Sometimes they had speakers playing music outside the store.
“We were always trying to find the next way to lighten up downtown Elmira,” said longtime employee Alexandra Porter of McHugh’s efforts.
But after 30 years as a fixture in downtown Elmira, the time has come for Brian’s Foto Source to close.
“Back in February, he had some health issues that took him away from the store. Unfortunately, he won’t be able to return to work. So, we just decided I would cover for him and we would finish out the lease, and then try and give the store as best of an end as we can.”
Porter started with Brian’s Foto Source in 2012 as a co-op student in high school. “I wanted something kind of related to the arts, and photography was the closest thing,” she said.
After her co-op placement, the store took her on as an employee, and she worked there for the summer, through university and beyond.
McHugh and his team ran the store through all kinds of ups and downs, like having to quickly evolve with the fast pace of change in the photography industry.
As people printed fewer photos, McHugh and his staff ended up learning more about programs like Photoshop to be able to better serve customers.
Porter says every day was different. She’s worked on all kinds of tasks, like helping people prepare photos to send publishers to accompany books, altering family photos after a divorce had happened, or compiling photos to ensure everyone is smiling. She also designed invitations or collages and helped people create meaningful last-minute gifts on Christmas Eve.
“We’ve had to constantly just adapt and learn about the new technology and figure out how best to help people,” she said.
Running the shop through the pandemic was also a challenge. They had to learn how to run the store with an online shop, and offer curbside pickup. McHugh says the forced shut-down of businesses was especially difficult.
“That’s killer for any of the businesses in town,” he said.
The last day Brian’s Foto Source will be open to the public is December 16. Porter says there will be a Remembrance Day display, and then one final goodbye display before they close.
What’s something people might not know about Brain McHugh?
“He was fiercely loyal to his customers. And the kindest man. And incredibly, incredibly stubborn. That might be something that that people wouldn’t necessarily know, as a Welshman, which he is very proud of.
“He’s incredibly stubborn, so there was no way this business was going to fail or not make it through some kind of challenge like COVID, like technology changing.”
Looking back, would McHugh have done anything differently with the way he ran his business? He thinks about it. “I don’t think I would touch it too much,” he said.
If there is one thing McHugh wants to tell the people of Elmira, what would it be?
“That I miss them,” he said.