Economy snares local victim

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Unable to keep camera department alive, Brownell’s Hallmark lays off longtime manager

By Carol A. Clark

Financial circumstances have forced Hallmark store owner Steve Brownell to deliver the dreaded news he’s put off for so long.

On May 8 he told his photography department manager Eric Johnson that he would be laid off in June. Johnson, whose last day is Wednesday, has worked at the store for 13 years.

“It’s an evolutionary thing with the world of digital — most people think of the Internet when they think of buying cameras,” Brownell said. “The margin of profit on cameras is less than 10 percent now, which is fine for an Internet company with low overhead but it makes a difference when you’re trying to keep a small store like us alive.”

Brownell said he will keep the card and gift portion of his store open but close the camera department. He’ll continue to stock camera accessories and keep his digital printing machine operating.

“We just can’t afford to keep an expert like Eric on anymore,” Brownell said. “Eric has been a real jewel. Behind his large frame and gruff exterior is a kind, kind person. He’s a giant of a guy both figuratively and literally.”

Johnson said he holds no hard feelings toward Brownell.

“He kept me here probably two years longer than he rightfully should have and I know it killed him to let me go,” Johnson said. “He had tears in his eyes when he delivered the news. More than this job, I’m going to miss Steve.”

Johnson plans to sell his home and move to Phoenix to be near his son and granddaughter.

Johnson arrived in town in 1978 straight from a stint in the United States Air Force. He followed members of his squadron to the photography department at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Within two years he moved over to Department of Energy contractor EG&G, eventually managing its photography department.

Johnson remained at that job for 15 years until he was laid off in the 1995 Reduction in Force (RIF), part of a DOE-wide effort to bring down costs.

He worked for the schools for a while and tried operating his own studio.

In 1997, he began working for Brownell’s Hallmark in Mari-Mac Shopping Center.

“I understand why things are the way they are,” Johnson said. “It’s just easier for people to stay home and shop on the Internet. I also understand why people want to go off the Hill. I go stir crazy if I’ve been stuck up here for three or four weeks. But I don’t care what anyone is trying to do — economic development isn’t going to happen in Los Alamos if people don’t shop in these stores.”

Steve and his wife Judy bought the store from Jim Ritter on Feb. 1, 1990. The store actually opened as a camera shop in 1946 and Ritter purchased it in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

“We’re the third owners and this is one of the longest continuous businesses in town,” Brownell said. “Eric has been a very integral part of this business and he’s become a good friend … we’re really going to miss him.”

Both Brownell and Johnson expressed their appreciation to the community members who do shop at the store, many who also over the years have become their friends.

Brownell’s is open

9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday and

9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.