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    The man in the yellow paisley chair has been here for a long time. You can tell by the outline of his body in the faded fabric. You can tell by the piles of books and bags and mail, as high as his head on both sides of him and at his feet. You can tell by the sleeping orange tabby cat on his lap, paws tucked under his belly, eyes closed and purring.

    The man in the yellow paisley chair seems to have leaned into the passage of time. He’s wearing a green T-shirt that says “Never Underestimate an Old Man with a Volleyball.” His white beard juts past his jawline, his wispy hair just over his ears, as if it hasn’t been cut in a while. This is Chuck Rubin, inside his eponymous Highlands shop, Chuck Rubin Photographics.

    It’s a quiet Tuesday afternoon at the shop — until three beeps and the front door opens and a young man walks in. He begins browsing the store without more than a nod to Rubin. A stuffed E.T. watches from a shelf, next to a giant Pentax analog clock, as the young man makes his way counterclockwise from the front alcove full of lights and stands, to the showcases lining the store’s back and north walls, back toward the front and finally past the counter covered in cameras with yellowing handwritten notes like “works, no meter.” The shelves behind it are covered in vintage cameras and relics from late-20th-century toy stores. A thin layer of dust covers it all.

    When the young man finally approaches Rubin, he’s holding a strobe. “Sorry to interrupt,” he says. “How much do you want for this?”

    “How much do you want to pay?” Rubin says.

    “Fifty dollars.”

    “Okay, $30,” Rubin fires back.

    The young man cocks his head and pauses, delightfully confused but grateful. “OK then!” he says.

    “They were $50 back when everyone still used them. Now they’re only worth $30,” Rubin says. “I can’t penalize you for not knowing the fair price. That’s not for you to keep track of. That’s my job.”

    The young man walks over to the counter, but Rubin lingers in his chair. He looks at me and says, loud enough for the customer to hear, “I think he wants me to go over there.” He sighs playfully. “I guess I will.”

    The tabby leaps off Rubin’s lap and silently onto the floor as Rubin uses both hands to push himself up out of that yellow paisley chair. He makes his way to the counter, expertly shifting around the knee-high piles of boxes and plastic containers. He’s tall and slow-moving, but with a lightness about him, like an old tree in the wind.

    Following the transaction, the young man gathers his things and turns away from the counter, when suddenly Rubin says, “Hey, I know you.”

    The young man laughs. “Yeah. I’ve been coming here a long time.”

    Rubin says, “That’s right. Your dad is David Burton, the (former Courier-Journal) photographer.”

    The young man lights up. “Yes, that’s me. I’m Cooper.”

    Cooper Burton has been coming to Chuck Rubin’s since he was 10 years old. He can remember sitting on the floor, Rubin in the paisley yellow chair, other photographers circled around him, while Burton counted out his weekly allowance so he could buy one of his first cameras: a Pentax 67.

    Now that Burton is 26 and a freelance professional photographer, Chuck Rubin’s is still his favorite place to buy equipment. He’ll order things online if he needs to, but it’s important to him to support Rubin. He feels a connection to this place. Coming into the store brings back memories of spending time with his dad, of the film cameras he learned on while growing up.

    Burton, strobe in one hand and pushing the door open with the other, pauses on his way out. “See you soon, Chuck,” he says.

    Rubin chirps his usual farewell. “Have fun out there.”


    Chuck Rubin // by Jessica Ebelhar

    Chuck Rubin Photographics has been at 1031 Bardstown Road for 31 years. The faded, red-painted concrete stairs and door lead to his signature dusty chaos and unmatched supply of antique and used cameras, bags, tripods, lights, stands and more.

    If you’d asked a young Chuck Rubin what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would not have answered “photographer,” and he most certainly would not have answered “businessman.”

    Born in 1945, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York, Rubin recalls a normal upbringing with a lot of freedom to roam. His mother was a housewife, his father an engineer in the Coast Guard. “TV Mom and Dad,” he calls them. No siblings, but Rubin remembers spending most of his time with seven neighborhood kids: “Alan, Jeffrey, Paul Cohen, Paul Rosenfeld, Billy Wiener,” he says, then pauses. “Howard Givner was not part of my crew. Who am I forgetting?” He shrugs. “That’s enough — six out of seven is good.”

    Rubin can recall, in detail, the day he beat up a kid named Joey Mechanic in front of Two Jacks Restaurant (which he’ll happily tell you about if you ask), the days he spent at Coney Island with his father throwing back grape sodas and Nathan’s Famous hot dogs (“Back when there was only one Nathan’s!”), and being sent on a solo mission to Manhattan at age 10 for cheesecake (“It was a different time then”).

    If you’d asked a young Chuck Rubin what he wanted to be when he grew up, he also would not have answered “collector.” Sure, he collected stamps and coins as a kid, but it seemed like every kid did back then. He was the kind of boy who didn’t really imagine being a grownup or being one particular thing. When his father retired, Rubin was 19 and not mentally or financially ready to live in New York alone. So he followed his parents to the Atlantic coast of Florida and a Jewish retirement community. “I was the youngest person there by 30 years,” he says, “so I went to college.”

    At Miami Dade Junior College, Rubin accidentally discovered his first love, acting, by wandering into a big red barn on campus that turned out to be the college’s playhouse. The first scene he was in, he got to kiss a six-foot-tall blond woman named Janet Lombard. He was hooked. Eventually, acting led Rubin to his second love. But not yet.

    After Miami Dade, Rubin got married, and he and his new wife moved to Tallahassee so he could attend the prestigious theater program at Florida State. Two weeks later, they got divorced. Rubin says that marriage doesn’t even really count. “On our honeymoon, we were in a cave in Jamaica and she was crying because she missed her father and I said, ‘OK, I’m in trouble,’” he remembers. “Shit. I got a pot and pan and she took everything else. It was probably a good thing.”

    Rubin finished the program at Florida State and then bounced around for a while. Back to Miami, where he acted in Boys in the Band. Then to New York, to play a leading role as a hippie in an Off-Off-Broadway show at what he vaguely remembers as a Zoroastrian cafe. Back to Miami again. His next move was to a place the young Jewish man from Brooklyn had never heard of or dreamed he would live.

    Sometime around 1970 — give or take a few years, Rubin says, as he’s never really figured it out — Rubin and two of his actor friends found an ad in Backstage magazine for Shakespearean repertory actors in Louisville, Kentucky. They moved here to join Kentucky Shakespeare, the organization behind Shakespeare in the Park. Rubin remembers the day its founder and local theater legend, Doug Ramey, gave him the role of Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew because the lead actor got sick and Rubin was “tall.” After that, Rubin says, almost all of his Shakespearean roles began with “P”: “Paris, the Prince, Peter, the ’pothecary,” he says with a grin.

    It was during a search for play props at the DAV thrift store in Shively that Rubin found his second love: his first camera. Well, not his first camera — that was a Kodak Instamatic 100 he kept during a nine-month stint in the Coast Guard — but the first camera that meant something to him. Vintage cameras often come in hard plastic shells that resemble suitcases, and at first, this particular dusty black suitcase seemed impenetrable. It took Rubin what felt like minutes to find the button to open it. When he finally did, the lid sprung open to reveal a Seneca 4x5 folding camera made of cherry-colored mahogany, brass and red leather. More beautiful than Janet Lombard. He bought it for $16.

    That Seneca 4x5 sparked an obsession in Rubin. He knew he wanted more cameras, so when he started going to regional camera shows and saw dealers buying gorgeous cameras for cheap, he thought, “I wanna be that guy.”

    For the next decade, his collection grew, though cameras took a backseat to other things in his life: the end of his Shakespearean acting career, a starring role in a ’70s sci-fi spoof movie called Invasion of the Girl Snatchers, employment as a substitute teacher, a stint as a bailiff, 10 tortuous years as a suit-and-tie-wearing square adjusting insurance claims at State Farm. Another marriage, another divorce.

    The end of that decade left him with no job and no spouse, and Rubin found himself in a familiar situation: unsure what to do next. His camera collection was the biggest thing he had going for him — literally, as it had begun to crowd his home. He needed a place to store them, and a way to get new ones. Most importantly, he needed a job. And, after the corporate grind of State Farm, preferably one where he could be his own boss. Though Rubin liked the size and feel of Louisville, he was ready to go somewhere that made more sense for him — California, perhaps, or on a road trip to antique and thrift stores throughout the country.

    But it turns out he didn’t need to — and couldn’t — go that far. Leaving Louisville didn’t work out, he says, for a couple of reasons.


    Inside Chuck Rubin Photographics // by Eddie Davis

    Three beeps and the front door opens, and one of those reasons walks into the store.

    Rubin’s daughter Jess has long dark hair, thick and long eyelashes, and a bronze glow to her skin, even in the middle of winter. She’s quiet, quickly waving hello to her dad as she stops to light a cinnamon spiced vanilla candle sitting atop a retro coin-operated arcade game called Drinker-Tinker, as she does every Saturday morning.

    You wouldn’t recognize Jess, or Rubin’s other daughter, Meredith, from the photograph on the back wall, of the store’s opening day: August 2, 1988. That day marked a turning point in Rubin’s life. His mind made up to stay in Louisville with his two young daughters, the solution to Rubin’s problems became obvious and only a few miles away: opening an antique camera store. Long before $4 popsicles and gastropubs in old churches, Bardstown Road was still funky, but perhaps in a less trendy way. The 1980s saw an influx of antique and oddity shops in the area, and Chuck Rubin Photographics made an apt addition to the neighborhood. Rubin bought the building at 1031 Bardstown Road for $68,000 with money from his parents’ estate, moved his personal belongings into the apartment upstairs, relocated his camera collection to the first floor, and gave himself one month to be successful as an antique camera dealer. If he wasn’t, he says, he had “the biggest playroom in town” and would turn it into something else — a place to set up his toy trains, show movies or house a theater group, perhaps. A place where people could gather.

    But no one was gathering in those early days. The morning of August 2, 1988, Rubin opened the store alone, his full inventory on display: eight cameras for sale on a single set of shelves. Anticipating a line, he opened up the front door for business to find only his friend John Longino, who had already contacted him ahead of time to make sure Rubin had what he was looking for. Longino was the only one who came that day.

    Thirty days later, the month-long promise Rubin made himself was realized: He had sold things, but more importantly, he bought more things to resell — one showcase worth. Everything was working exactly the way it should and better than he could have guessed.

    So he kept going. In the late 1980s, film photography was king, and Rubin felt like the king of film. His inventory grew and shrank appropriately with the pace of quick and lucrative sales. He was making enough money to go to camera shows all across the country, and to Europe to buy more interesting and expensive cameras, including two daguerreotype cameras from the 1850s — the oldest and most precious pieces he’s ever owned. In a matter of a couple of years, Rubin turned those eight cameras and single set of shelves into a room lined with hundreds of cameras in jagged rows, squeezing in as many as possible. He taped a square onto the floor toward the back of the store to stand tripods and other products that didn’t fit into the showcases. At the height of his business, Rubin estimates, his inventory was worth more than half a million dollars.

    Then, sometime in the early 1990s, a new product exploded onto the consumer market, the crispness, speed and efficiency of which film cameras could not compete: the digital camera. “Digital was the death of us,” Rubin says.

    The majority of Rubin’s customers are professional photographers and students, who, out of necessity, quickly made the jump to digital. Buying a more expensive piece of equipment means holding on to it for longer, so no one was quick to sell their digital camera to Rubin. In addition, many film photography accessories — a large chunk of Rubin’s business — were rendered unnecessary.

    Rubin is the first to admit that he is slow — if not often downright opposed — to change. “I sell film cameras. Just because they sell digital doesn’t mean I stop doing what I do,” he says of that period. “I’m so stubborn I could kick my own ass.” He laughs. “It doesn’t hurt anyone but me.”

    It took Rubin 11 years to acquire his first digital camera at the store. These days, it’s full of them (all used, of course) and he understands why his store isn’t the first destination in mind for customers seeking a digital product. “I don’t know that I’d buy a digital camera from this place,” he says of his own store. “I’d go to Murphy’s. I do go to Murphy’s. It’s all chrome and glass, and clean. But film cameras thrive here, all dusty and stuff.”

    As photographic technology changed, so did another key piece of Rubin’s business: the Internet. That’s what Jess is here for. She walks behind a waist-high pile of fabric backdrops supported by plastic tubs and boxes on a two-tiered metal shelf. Under a giant flag covered in crumbled plaster from the ceiling, a cardboard cutout of Marilyn Monroe at her back, she switches on a lamp and suddenly that corner of the dusty chaos takes the shape of a desk and a computer. Every Saturday, she comes to her father’s store to photograph and list inventory to be sold on eBay.

    The Internet, and sites like eBay in particular, has been both helpful and destructive to the store. Instead of going to brick-and-mortar shops like Rubin’s, customers can Google what they’re looking for and find it for sale on multiple websites. The upside is that Rubin’s eBay page may be one of those sites. Rubin isn’t shy about the fact that eBay sales have kept the store afloat for the past several years and likely will for however many more he’s open. Though film photography is enjoying a bit of renaissance these days, Rubin knows the medium — and his business — will never reach the heights of the early days. “It’s not going to come back even to one-tenth of what it was. It used to be, when school started in September, we would sell 100 to 200 cameras to photography students,” he says. “This was even five years ago. Now we sell 20.

    “Which is a whole lot better than nothing,” he adds.

    When he first opened, Rubin modified an old computer program himself to keep track of his inventory. But when the hard drive broke, he never fixed it. After that, he tracked his purchases on yellow legal pads, but eventually, he lost interest in trying. It’s been about 20 years since he knew his exact inventory and how much it’s worth. Currently, Rubin estimates there are about 200 cameras for sale in the store, 200 antique cameras and about 100 mini cameras. Three of the cameras in his collection are worth between $15,000 and $20,000 apiece, and he estimates the rest are worth maybe $300 apiece, on average. He doesn’t care to calculate whatever the total may be.

     

    Jess isn’t the only person working at the store on Saturday. Ron Bailey shuffles around piles of inventory up to his knees, sorting mail and packages in between ringing up customers. Bailey started coming into the store almost a quarter-century ago, as a hobbyist photographer and customer. But after about a dozen years of coming back, he had learned enough about cameras and photo gear that he would hang out in the store and help customers, just because he wanted to.

    Bailey is also a member of the Camera Club of Louisville, a fellowship of local photographers and those who want to learn. They raise money for their club and photo trips through camera sales. Rubin provides the merchandise for those sales, free of charge.

    Bailey holds up a brown cardboard box with postage taped to the front. “Here’s that package!” he shouts to Rubin. Then to me, with a head tilt, eyes wide as he says through his teeth: “It’s only been missing for two weeks.”

    Employee Ron Bailey // by Eddie Davis
     

    Debbie Bradshaw carries three trash bags full of old papers through the store to the dumpster. She’s Bailey’s friend and works here Saturday mornings, too, trying to clean up the chaos. While she’s here, she never stops moving, rearranging inventory and asking Rubin what to keep and what to throw away. But the store has been this way for too long. The dusty chaos always seems to remain.

    Classic rock plays on a radio out of sight while a retro red clock ticks Saturday morning on. When its hands mark 10:30 — just 30 minutes after the store opened — Rubin looks at Bailey and says, “Now, take a break.”

    Bailey says he will, but first he needs to see if an old battery charger works.

    Rubin immediately shoots back: “Well, then, plug it in and lick it.”

    Three beeps and the front door opens. In walks a man with a black newsboy cap, salt-and-pepper soul patch, and a Queens accent. He could easily be mistaken for Dustin Hoffman. He walks the narrow aisle from the front door and sits down in a gray office chair opposite Rubin’s yellow paisley one.

    Fred DiGiovanni is a local “silver” photographer. He processes monochrome images in his personal darkroom at his Highlands home and shows in galleries all over the country. His story is similar to Bailey’s: He came in for photo gear, kept coming back for the camaraderie. “I came in one day just after Chuck had opened the shop,” DiGiovanni says. “This was around 1988. I started asking a bunch of questions and Chuck turned to me and, with his Brooklyn accent, said, ‘Now, who are you?’” DiGiovanni chuckles. “We became fast friends.”

    Over the years, DiGiovanni has witnessed Rubin’s sense of humor on a weekly basis — like the time one of Rubin’s employees fell asleep at the counter and a customer walked in. “Chuck put his finger to his lips and said, ‘Shhh, don’t wake my employee,’” DiGiovanni recalls. “You have to have a sense of humor in this store.”

    But DiGiovanni says Rubin’s humor is second to his generosity. “He helps out anyone he can,” DiGiovanni says. “Buying candy, camera parts, whatever it is they’re selling, even if it’s things he doesn’t really need.” This is especially true when it comes to supplying film cameras to photography students in high school or college. Whenever a student buys a camera at Chuck’s, they can bring it back for repairs or exchange free of charge. “Without Chuck, film photography may not happen anymore here because he provides them that opportunity,” DiGiovanni says. “He does a service to the entire photography community.”

    Three beeps and the front door opens, and a young woman walks in holding a plastic container of chocolate-chip cookies. Michele Korfhage’s story is similar to DiGiovanni’s, is similar to Bailey’s. She bought her first camera, a Pentax K1000, in this store 20 years ago as a photography student at what’s now Jefferson Community and Technical College. Now Korfhage owns her own photography business.

    When I ask why Rubin is so lucky to get cookies, they both grin. Years ago, Korfhage “bought” a lens from him, and he charged her the price of chocolate-chip cookies. He does that sometimes — charges people food instead of money — but it’s usually apples, and for people he doesn’t know. “Its more fun that way,” he says.

    Rubin sits in his chair, eating his cookies. Korfhage pulls up her own chair and they start swiping through pictures on her phone. When I ask if she still buys her photography gear here, she smiles and says, “Of course!”

    But then she adds, “Oh, I don’t come for the stuff though. I come for Chuck. We all come for Chuck.”

    Three beeps and the front door opens. Then it opens again. People stream in all Saturday morning long: Freddie, John, Keith, Linda, Doug, another Linda, Tim, David, Mike, Bill, Steve, Bob. Some customers, some friends, most a blend of both.


    Rubin, left // by Eddie Davis

    If you look out across Bardstown Road, you’ll notice something: Rubin’s business is the oldest in sight. When I ask Rubin how he’s made it all these years without knowing if he’s even turning a profit, he pauses and playfully says, “Because I don’t give a shit.” This place has never been about money for Rubin. “I like it here. I like being with my stuff, with the people who come in,” Rubin says. “When I’m in here, I’m 26 again.”

    Rubin has long since moved out of the upstairs apartment and in with his partner, Lynn, in Crescent Hill. He sold the building five years ago, and the owners have allowed him to stay. But now a new for-sale sign hangs to the left of the faded, red-painted door and stairs on the building’s front. Rubin’s not sure if whoever buys it will want an old business as a tenant — especially one as idiosyncratic as his.

    As closing time approaches, Rubin still sits in his chair. A few people linger past 2 o’clock, and I catch Rubin looking around the store, giggling to himself. I ask him what he’s thinking, and at first, he’s too shy to answer. But then his orneriness kicks in. “It reminds me of college parties,” he says. “When the lights come on and you look around to see who is going home with you.”

    If you’d asked a young Chuck Rubin what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would have answered, “Left alone.” It’s not that he’s a loner; he loves people. He spends the week with his partner and her grandson, as much time as possible with his daughters and grandchildren, and, of course, with his customers and community. But every weekend, he heads to his cabin at Patoka Lake in Indiana, tucked in the Hoosier National Forest about an hour’s drive from Louisville. Rubin would tell you he doesn’t have a particular reason for wanting to be alone each weekend. But most who know him would agree it doesn’t matter. He gives away so much that he deserves time and space just for him. But he’ll be back in his chair on Tuesday morning, and every morning, until closing time the following Saturday.

    I ask when he’ll retire and he laughs. “What would be the point? I’m already retired,” he says. “I haven’t worked a single day in 31 years.”

    This originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Checking in on Chuck." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo by Jessica Ebelhar

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