BY DOMINIQUE JAMES
A seemingly strange and mysterious string of letters makes up for the title of this blog post. If you’re a professional photographer, you may probably have somewhat of an idea on what it means. If not, allow me explain.
B and H, the first two letters in the sequence, stand for the name of a photo and video equipment store. Being a non-chain store, it is located only in New York City, which represents the next three letters. And it is the biggest in the United States of America, which brings us the final three in the string of letters. I could have added a W at the end, for it is also perhaps one of the most well-known, if not the most well-known, in the entire world.
Sure, there are other B&Hs out there—an airline service, a publishing group, a music service, a railroad company, and a cigarette brand even (can you imagine!), but for our purposes, we refer to B&H as how we’ve always known it, and how we like it, B&H Photo Video.
B&H started out in 1973 as a storefront shop selling film on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was run by Herman Schreiber and his wife, Blimie, which pretty much explains what B&H stands for. Quickly outgrowing its space, it moved to a large loft on West 17th Street, in an area that was known in the 70s as the Photo District. Catering to the needs of neighborhood artists, the store expanded to sell film equipment and other photo products.
In 1997, B&H moved to its present 9th Avenue and 34th Street location. By October 30, 2007, it had opened the floor above the ground level sales floor, bringing the total to 70,000 square feet of sales space. Products such as pro lighting, binoculars and scopes, video, audio, darkroom, film, as well as home and portable entertainment are all on the first floor. On the second floor are analog and digital photography equipment, computers, printers, scanners and related accessories. With more than 235,000 products in stock, it’s almost certain that if a doodad exists, it can be bought at B&H.
B&H has more than 1,500 employees. On average, they serve somewhere between 11,000 to 12,000 in-store customers per day. In addition, B&H conducts a considerable amount of business on the Internet. In 35 years, B&H has grown into a “superstore.” With knowledgeable sales professionals and the installed mechanical labyrinth to magically bring you each and every item you ask for wherever you happen to be in the store, B&H is the gadgeteer’s equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
B&H is so firmly established that it’s almost fair to say no self-respecting professional photographer (or professional videographer for that matter) from anywhere in the world has not heard of it. In fact, it is likely the world’s top photographers and videographers, at one point or another, have bought stuff from the B&H store, or at least ordered online.
When I moved to the city three years ago, I knew for sure I’d visit B&H soon enough—just to check things out. For me, B&H was in itself one of the city’s “attractions.” Of course, it doesn’t quite compare to the grandness of The Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty, but to a professional photographer such as myself, it’s one those that falls into the categories of “must-visit” and “not-to-be-missed” places.
The first time I stepped inside B&H, I was somewhat overwhelmed and bewildered. I didn’t quite understand the store’s layout, directional signs, waypoints, and the many personnel stationed all over. But after a few minutes of getting properly oriented, it soon enough started to make sense—these were all guides that had been carefully setup to tell where you are in the labyrinth, and also to help direct where you should go next. I imagine everyone’s first visit to B&H must have been as heady as my first-time experience.
As I settled into the city, I began to visit B&H more often to do something more purposeful: buy stuff. I can almost guess that many a credit cards like mine have thinned a millimeter from being constantly swiped at B&H’s checkout counters, more than at any other establishment in New York. Visa and MasterCard and Amex and Discover would each be justifiably happy.
Everyone’s B&H experience is encapsulated between two points: an expectant beginning at the entrance door with Pedro, the cheery greeter who ushers one and all into the store; and a happy ending at the exit door with the smiling Sheila, who hands out survey coupons, and Alfonso, who expertly shows the proper way out. In between, of course, is the heart and soul of the B&H experience, the encounters with the Davids, Solomons, and Jacobs at every nook and cranny of the two-floor selling area. This carefully controlled piece of Manhattan real estate hums with a well-oiled wheel of commerce under a veneer of genuine, professional friendliness.
Lately, I have been hanging out at B&H—almost every day these past two months, more than I ever did at any other place in the entire amazing city of New York. And I don’t even work there! So there, that’s all there is to the string of letters that serves as this blog title.
But wouldn’t you like to know why I’ve been spending a lot of time at B&H? I mean, how often do I (or anyone for that matter) really need to go there? Sure, I’ve been buying stuff, only because no one can remain impervious to the temptation on display. But shopping is not the only reason for anyone to go there day to day. That’s the story I wanted to tell you.
Tucked in an area on the 2nd floor is a compact space called Event Space. It’s actually almost so inconspicuous that many people who go to B&H may not even notice it. I’ve been going there for photography lectures, seminars, and workshops, conducted by some of the most talented pros from around the world.
The B&H Event Space, launched in November of 2007, is a learning environment designed to educate, inspire, and cultivate a community of like-minded individuals who aspire to be great at what they love to do. By offering workshops and lectures on pro photography (and also on pro video and pro audio), their mission is to help those in the community achieve their goals. David Brommer is one of B&H Event Space’s well-known figures. He is supported by a team of photo, video and audio experts: Allan Weitz, Andrew P. Byrd, Casey Krugman, Gabriel Biderman, Jason Friedman, Joey Quintero, and Larry Cohen.
Finding the right speakers to conduct talks at B&H is important. In many instances, they directly reach out to those whom they want to speak at the Event Space. “We find photographers on blogs or other industry websites, and will contact them if we like their work. Other times, we find speakers through recommendations,” a B&H spokesperson said.
“The qualifications that we look for in a speaker are: first and foremost, quality of work; secondly, it’s important that the photographer has good public speaking skills. If the photographer is an instructor, that is a very good quality to have because it’s a strong indicator that they speak well. The usual concerns when getting speakers are scheduling—deciding what day is most appropriate for them to speak.”
The B&H Event Space also partners with major manufacturers in the imaging industry and academic institutions in the arts to produce a wide range of workshops and seminars, covering a vast spectrum of topics.
“There are times where speakers are sponsored by manufacturers, in which case the company chooses the speaker,” the spokesperson said. “Not all speakers are sponsored by companies, only about 10 percent are. Sometimes speakers will ask us to help find them sponsorship, and this can be very challenging. It’s really the responsibility of the speaker to find their own sponsorship. If we can assist, we will at times but it doesn’t always work out. It’s challenging to find sponsorship, especially in this economy.”
In addition, B&H “Mavens,” employees who are experts on a specific topic, teach classes in the Event Space. On Sundays, high-profile and emerging photographers, as well as industry professionals, deliver inspirational lectures about their work and spin their personal tales of success. “We like to have more artistic lectures on Sundays,” the spokesperson said.
The very first speaker at the Event Space was Mike Corrado from Nikon. It was a D300 and D300s product launch. Since then, the Event Space has hosted a number of prominent speakers including Brian Storm, Vincent Laforet, Joyce Tenneson, Joe McNally, and John Paul Caponigro. (Oh, by the way, just like everyone else, most of the speakers often shop before and after their lectures, sometimes spending thousands of dollars.)
The most requested topics are on software, mainly Photoshop and other editing tools like Adobe’s Lightroom, among others. Lighting seminars and travel photography are also very popular.
The sessions that were the most memorable, the spokesperson said, were the Lensbaby photo safari through Times Square, Real Exposures with Harvey Stein, The Women Photography Panel, the f295 symposium, Sarah Small’s lecture, and David Brommer’s Composition class.
The B&H Event Space can comfortably sit around 60 people at a time. Reservations to any of the events can be made online. The best-attended session of all time was Joe McNally’s lecture—92 people, all tightly packed in a tiny space! (Did the city’s safety inspectors know about this? Just kidding!)
All the sessions at the B&H Event Space are free. “We believe in providing free education to the public so that everyone has an equal chance to learn and benefit from the service we are providing,” the spokesperson said. “We are not interested in gaining a profit from our events, but we realize that attendees who visit our Event Space may be inclined to shop once they are inside the store.”
I found out about the Event Space during my first visit. I’ve attended a couple of sessions before. Then two months ago, I decided to check it out again. Then like an addiction, I ended up attending most of the scheduled events, all within the span of 8 consecutive weeks. I sat for 2-hour stretches at a time, listening to different speakers: Peter Turnley, Katrin Eismann, Tim Grey, Adam Barker, Jim Vecchi, Will Crockett, Kareem Black, Andrew Gruber, Kerrick James, Jem Schofield, David Guy Maynard, Marc Silber, Allan Weitz, Rudy Winston, Quest Couch, Amy Kosh, Rick Berk, Victor Ha, Lili Almog, and Lindsay Adler.
Sitting in these sessions, I also got to know some of the other regular attendees. There’s Tina, the professional pet photographer who taps extensive notes into her laptop, There’s Meryll, who always makes sure to ask her seat mates, both left and right, and also sometimes front and back, questions about matters that are unclear to her. There’s Emmanuel, who listens quietly and intently, absorbing everything like a sponge. And then there’s Jim who records the sessions with his Flip Mino. (Don’t these people have jobs? Why are they always there? LOL)
After each of the 2-hour sessions, I invariably hang around the store a bit, wandering here and there, and almost always deciding which of the thousands and thousands of items on display I will spend money on. If you hang out in B&H long enough and often enough like I did, you’ll soon come to one inescapable realization—you want to buy everything. Well, almost everything!
The B&H Event Space experience doesn’t end when the session ends. In fact, the lectures, workshops and seminars are just the beginning. The B&H Event Space is turning out to be a hub for a small but growing community. Beyond sitting in the sessions and receiving pro-level instruction and inspiration, anyone who might be interested can get involved in other ways.
For instance, you can sign up on their Facebook and Twitter pages to keep abreast of the goings-on, including additional unscheduled sessions, pop quizzes with special prizes, and many other surprise goodies. You can join and contribute photos in their Flickr group. On iTunes, you can download podcasts of some of their recorded sessions. And, here’s something that very few people know about—you can become one of the B&H Infinitists by joining the Infinity Photographic Society’s monthly gathering.
With all these, no wonder Sergey Brin, president and co-founder of Google, said that B&H is his favorite camera store. And yes, if it isn’t obvious yet, it happens to be mine too.
(Note: This blog post originally came out on June 23, 2010. It has been updated since its first online release.)