A Century of Investing in Downtown: Wolfe’s Camera Shop

By Adam Vlach
Photos by Rachel Lock Photography

With advancements in technology through the years, Wolfe’s Camera Shop, located at 635 S. Kansas Ave., has relied on the ability to adapt over the course of its 92-year lifespan.

Harold Wolfe founded his company in downtown Topeka in 1924. The business started out with Wolfe developing film for customers. After World War II, the services offered expanded to include picture-making, and that is also when the business first became a camera store.

Currently, Wolfe’s is co-owned by second-generation family members Mike Worswick and DeWitt Harkness. Both of who practically grew up in the business.

wolfes“We used to have some branch stores, so when I was in the seventh grade, in the summer, I rode my bicycle to our store at 2017 Gage and worked in that store,” Worswick said. “Then I worked at Wolfe’s part time all through high school and college. Then I went off and worked some other places and then came back to Wolfe’s in 1972. I’ve been here ever since.”

To accommodate the demands and needs of customers, and the fluctuating economic conditions, Wolfe’s has sold much more than just cameras as the years have gone by, always striving to stay on the cutting edge of the technology world. At one time, Wolfe’s was an audio dealer, Worswick said. It was one of the first companies to actively sell and install home stereo systems in Topeka—it sold the first tape recorders in the community. It also sold thousands of pocket calculators and was the leader in the arrival of VCRs and digital moviemaking. Wolfe’s also ran a movie rental store at one time.

Worswick said adaptability has been key in staying open for so long.

“Everything changes. A retailer who doesn’t adapt to the market demands and needs, and customers’ desires isn’t going to be much of a success,” Worswick said.

At one point, Wolfe’s entered the computer business, anticipating the arrival of digital photography. Wolfe’s sold computers before Microsoft Windows had been invented, Worswick said. The company also began selling big screen TVs. The sale of those televisions stopped for a while, but has since resumed.

“We have always explored and experimented,” Worswick said. “The primary thing that’s helped us last as long as we’ve made it, to 92 years, is not staying the same. If you stay the same, the public eventually doesn’t want the same thing anymore.”

Worswick said the company has evolved with the times, using the Internet to sell many of its products and services. Today, about half of Wolfe’s sales are made online as opposed to in-store transactions.

No single change or adaptation that Wolfe’s has made over the course of the years could be singled out as a “gargantuan” moment or shift, however.

“It’s really more like evolution than revolution,” Worswick said. “If you’re a good retailer, the public should just continue to think you’re pretty much the same [company], because the things that are consistent are attention to customers, quality information, good selection of inventory, ability to meet customers’ needs.”

Although Wolfe’s has adapted to the changing marketplace over the past 92 years, its fundamental business model has stayed the same.

“Wolfe’s is in the business of selling technologically oriented products that require some customer explanation before making a purchase decision,” Worswick said.