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I’ve always been fascinated by colorful movie characters who repaired clocks in their quaint shops. They seemed to know things that the rest of us miss. It’s as if the answer to life is tucked away behind those tiny metal springs and delicate brass gears.

In 2015 I began my own version of this story. I started fixing and selling film cameras. It was the most unconscious career move I had ever made. I stumbled into the job by merely wanting to shoot film again. My plan was to write a book about 1970s and 80s 35mm SLRs — the best analog cameras of all time.

As much as I loved my growing collection, it was engulfing me. It was my version of the clock shop, but without customers. So I opened TheFilmCameraShop on Etsy to move inventory.

People loved it.

Within a short time I sold everything that I had collected for the book. So now what? The money wasn’t great because I didn’t know what I was doing — at least not at first. Mistakes were made. But with each endeavor I improved. I decided to find more forgotten cameras and restore them.

I learned many things along the way. Never try to clean a focusing screen. You may think that you can make it shine, but it just becomes an unusable mess. Don’t bother with cameras that require mercury batteries — stick with models that use LR44 button cells. And regardless of the outcome, save as many parts as you can.

People who follow the shop may notice that I stick with certain brands and models. There’s a practical reason for that. Through hours of trial and error I’ve discovered that some cameras can be fixed while others cannot. (I’ll resist applying a broader meaning to this lesson, at least for now.) So for the ones that can be repaired, I’ve collected an inventory of spare parts. When I see a Nikon FG with a broken arm (aka a film advance lever), I know how to replace it and I have the means to do so.

Now, 5 years later, I can’t imagine life without the shop.

I figured out tinkering is in my DNA. As a kid, I was fascinated with taking things apart. Bicycles were my favorite victims. My fantasy was that somehow my labors would lead to riding faster and braking sharper. Generally speaking, there was no improvement at all. But I did learn how to use the tools and had fewer parts left over with each attempt. That’s the true badge of honor — when not one bolt remains on the garage floor once the task is complete.

The other night at home, I was working on a fan that wouldn’t spin. It dawned on me that I instantly knew how to fix it. I grabbed the right tools and had the proper lubricant. I looked around the house and noticed other recent repairs.

What I had learned fixing cameras was that I could take more control of my environment. Just because I didn’t know how to do something initially, doesn’t mean that I couldn’t learn the skill over time. I always wanted to be that guy who could tune-up bikes, repair clocks, and change the radiator hose on my car.

I am that guy. I have a cordless drill and I know how to use it. I can repair small appliances in a single bound.

We’ve never seen a year like the one we’ve survived in 2020 — raging fires, rampant spread of a virus, economic upheaval, and political unrest. A decade of pain packed into a single orbit around the sun.

During the darkest periods, there were months when the camera shop paid the utilities. And thanks to everyone’s contributions, our social bubble prevailed. As a result, I’m more independent now than ever. Survival builds confidence.

I realize that there are many problems ahead that I don’t know how to solve. But one way or another, I will. And I will do so with no extra parts when the job is done.

Springs and gears — maybe there is something in there.

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