OPINION: Chuck Wolf, Atlanta’s camera man, is still at it

The namesake of Chuck Wolf's Photo Design Bar stands inside inside the entrance of his lone store in Buckhead. Wolf once reigned over an empire of 700-plus photo shops before the business changed.

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

The namesake of Chuck Wolf's Photo Design Bar stands inside inside the entrance of his lone store in Buckhead. Wolf once reigned over an empire of 700-plus photo shops before the business changed.

The wall of teeth, the neighborly gaze and the confident sales pitch are still there, even though his photo empire is long gone.

Chuck Wolf, once Atlanta’s iconic camera man — heck, America’s camera man, is down from 700-plus stores to one. But the pitching never stops.

He points to the merch in the front of his Buckhead store like the consummate salesman he is: “Look at these canvas and acrylic photos and look at that detail. Those are very popular. Here is our custom framing. No one does it better. And over here are all the photo shop people and designers. They’re amazing.”

His silver tongue, once ubiquitous on TV and in radio ads in Atlanta and nationwide — spending $10 million-plus a year in the late 1990s — is still wagging. And, at 81, Wolf is glad to be in the game.

I recently came across Wolf pitching his wares on Facebook and immediately thought, “Wow! He’s still at it.”

He sure is.

Back in the day, Chuck Wolf built Atlanta-based Wolf Camera into one of the nation’s largest specialty camera and photo chains with 700 stores. Here’s how he looked in 1998, three years before his empire crumbled. RICHARD FOWLKES/AJC

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Wolf has carved out a niche with Chuck Wolf’s Photo Design Bar and has made a go of it following a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a business merger and ultimately a shuttering. The former proprietor of Wolf Camera returned to business in 2014 on Roswell Road one door down from Johnny’s Hideaway, Atlanta’s nighttime divorcee haven and a landmark that Wolf likes to mention because people of a certain age all seem to know where it is.

He returned because he says there is a need for what he does, and perhaps more truthfully, “I was bored.”

People are taking more photos than ever — billions of them — but they largely don’t enjoy the tactile experience that comes with those images.

Digital photos mostly remain cloistered away on our phones and computers. I have 12,837 on my iPhone, a fact that caused Wolf to wince.

His mission is to get those hidden digital images on people’s walls, pillows and coffee mugs.

He shared his credo.

“This is the big Chuck Wolf quote: A photo is not a photo unless its printed,” said the man whose epic career allows him to once in a while slip into the third-person.

Wolf is a true American rise-and-fall story, one complete with a second act.

Chuck Wolf back in the start of his career right after college.

Credit: Courtesy of Chuck Wolf

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Credit: Courtesy of Chuck Wolf

His family moved from Oklahoma to Washington, D.C., after his dad died when Wolf was a teen. He went to work with his relatives, the Ritz family, in their camera shops. He returned after college and helped grow that chain from six stores to about 50. Then, in 1975 while he was in his early 30s, he asked to go out on his own, bought six of the Ritz family stores in Atlanta and became his own man.

During the 1990s, Wolf appeared regularly in the news as his company gobbled up smaller chains in California, New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Nashville, etc.

“He was in a constant race with his uncle Ritz,” said Joel Babbitt, the Atlanta marketing expert who was Wolf’s adman. “They were always arguing who was the first or second” largest photo company in the U.S.

“He was very good on the air, very personable,” said Babbitt. “One of the great things from an advertising standpoint was his name.”

Yes, newspapers took note of that, too,

A May 1998 article about Wolf had the headline, “On the prowl, hungry and certainly not sheepish.”

Two months later, Wolf Camera bought Fox Photo (no kidding), a 449-store chain owned by Eastman Kodak, putting him well over the 700-store mark and within striking range of his cousins at Ritz, who then had 810 stores.

It was, he says, “the biggest mistake I ever made.”

Ultimately, the debt was crushing, coming at a time when digital cameras and home printers stole away revenue.

In 2001, he filed for Chapter 11 protection and ultimately had to merge with his rival cousins.

“If the banks let us work it out a bit longer, I could have made it,” he lamented. Later, Ritz Cameras faced the same fate.

Now, Wolf is back at it with a store operated by young people, including his daughter Liv. He said he’d like to open a couple more stores although he later wavered, saying “I don’t know if I want the extra headache.”

Chuck Wolf, longtime photo guy, left, speaks with customer Martin Tilson at his store.

Credit: Bill Torpy

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Credit: Bill Torpy

“Everyone here, except my ex-wife, is under 30,” said Wolf. Actually, Missi Wolf, who works as a real estate agent, is his second ex-wife and is helping out with the Christmas rush. (Wolf has children aged 53, 50, 26 and 24.)

On Wednesday, the business usually had 10-15 customers getting ready for the holidays, putting their digital memories into a more tangible form.

Melinda Rue had a family photo of her four kids, their spouses and seven grandkids put onto a 16-by-24 inch acrylic board. Rue said a friend told her of Wolf’s new operation.

“I shopped with Wolf Camera for years; I remember his face from the TV ads,” she said. “I wanted some high-quality pictures for Christmas.”

Martin Tilson, who runs a venture capital firm, was getting a 24-by-36-inch acrylic photo of him and a dozen of the young MBAs he has mentored.

“I love what he does and continues to do,” Tilson told me. “You don’t see quality like this.”

Upon hearing Tilson’s line of work, Wolf mentioned that a few million dollars of investment would help expand the number of stores.

You’ve got to love Chuck Wolf — 81 years old and still pitching.