This Saturday is “Small Business Saturday” in the U.S., and we’re proud that the majority of our local retail partners are small, local businesses. This year, we’re profiling three unique small businesses that support and nurture their local photography community, starting with treehouse camera in Honolulu:
With the resurgence in analog film photography, treehouse camera has provided a one-of-a-kind local hub for enthusiasts, students, and creatives in Honolulu, Hawaii. We spoke to founder Bobby Asato—who has operated the store since 2012—about the store’s unique journey. Photography by Treehouse shop staff Chris Rohrer, who shot the store on Fujifilm Superia 400 with a Leica R8 camera.
Tell us about the store’s roots.
I’ve had 11 years of experience in retail and 13 in freelance graphic design. I always wanted to open a shop and in 2012—after having 2 kids—I went for it and started treehouse to promote analog creative arts. Initially, we were 75% arts and craft kits for kids, holding art workshops. The other 25% was film and art/photo books for the adults. While doing graphic design, I started shooting film and found it to have way more character and uniqueness compared to the growing digital photography.
In 2014, we became the local supplier for the black and white film photography college students. Between that and the timing of re-interest in film photography, that was paying the bills so the shop evolved to a full-service film photo shop. Somehow, the transition was seamless, probably because we were still promoting the analog arts.
When was this store founded?
How many locations do you have / have you occupied?
We moved to our new location at SALT in Kaka’ako in Dec. 2016, a few blocks from our original location. We were in an office space building with limited parking for 4 years. I’m stoked on our new location with lots of free 1-hour parking in garage. The area is rapidly growing to become an urban living creative community.
What makes your store special compared to any other place someone can purchase the same product?
We’re actually the only analog film photography shop in Honolulu. We’ve managed to curate a mix of traditional film cameras and darkroom supplies along with photography accessories (camera bags, tripods, camera straps), apparel, art/photo books, and other creative items.
Describe your local photography community.
It’s a mix of college photo students, creatives, and people who shot film in the past exploring it again. They all appreciate the analog process of thinking through the shots, breaking from the digital aspect of preview/review/edit, and appreciating the characteristics of different film stock and cameras. The more passionate ones process their own film and some print in the darkroom. There’s also an endless amount of film cameras to explore – 35mm, 120, large format, instant, etc.
How have your company and your customer changed over the years?
We’ve become a more lifestyle retailer with a creative analog arts community that supports and appreciates the medium. The staff are all very passionate about film photography and are actively shooting it. I’m so happy about the current staff, and they are equally as important as the goods and services that the shop provides. This has pretty much been what the shop has always been about.
Are there any customers and/or staff who have been with you since day one?
There are a lot of customers from the start that continue to support us and shoot film. Most of the staff have been part of treehouse 2-3 years now.
What’s one challenge you’ve faced in recent years and how have you dealt with it?
I think trying to find the right merchandise mix and inventory level. Film photography merchandise have a low profit margin so having other categories that fit—along with building our brand—is a good balance. Also, trying to supply the education system and having supplies available is important in keeping their programs going. We hope that students can continue to experience the analog process, especially in this fast-paced digital and social media environment.
What’s your favorite part of the store?
Our staff and our customers for sure. It’s very exciting to be around and talk to others that are active in film photography and other analog creative mediums. Also, seeing someone start with a disposable then really get into it, exploring a manual film camera, moving into larger formats and processing their own film.
Five/ten/twenty years ago, I never would have thought… film photography would be relevant with the fast advancement and convenience of the digital market. It seems that the film community has been even stronger since we opened.
What have you learned as a business owner over the years?
I’ve learned that you have to be adaptable in various ways, be creative and think outside of the box with retail, connect with your customers and stay true with a passion for it so that it resonates.
What are some goals and dreams you have for the store in the near future?
Continue to inspire creatives to explore the analog arts. Continue with photo installations and community meet-ups such as our bi-monthly Film Camera Swap Meet and Film Photo Swap. We hope to build our brand to offer unique items for the analog photo enthusiasts and collaborate with other groups to broaden our reach. #analogueyerlife