Surviving on tradition and some adaptation

December 21, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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MUSKEGON — Tradition may be part of the secret to survival for family-owned businesses such as Radium Photo in downtown Muskegon. Another part of the secret is the ability to adapt to change.

The tradition at Radium — for the past 100 years — is to have a Charles Cihak (pronounced "see-hock") behind the counter when a customer comes in. If and when the reigning boss, Charles Cihak III, retires, there is 29-year-old Charles Cihak IV to replace him, assisted by his sister, MacKenzie Cihak Richardson. Cihak IV has worked there for the past seven years, and Richardson the past two.

Charlie Cihak, 61, has worked full time at Radium since 1971. He bought the business from his father, Charles Cihak II, around 1983, who had taken over from his father, the first Charles Cihak. Charles II, who passed away in 2002 at age 85, was still working at the shop in his last year of life.

"He liked people," said Cihak III, adding that, in the retail business, "if you don't like people, you're in the wrong line of work."

"We've had four generations of Charlie. That way, the customers didn't have to learn a new name," he quipped.

The Cihaks are survivors of the new world of digital photography, and also have survived the Great Recession and the decline of downtown Muskegon.

"I figured my grandpa got through the Depression, so I guess I can get through the downturn in the economy right now," said Cihak.

Since being founded in November 1909, Radium Photo has been in five locations in downtown Muskegon, three of them on Western Avenue. Since 1975, it has been at Terrace and Clay, just one block over from Western Avenue.

There has been a lot of graphic change to downtown Muskegon, triggered by the city's loss of much of its heavy industry over the last 20 years. Cihak said he believes Radium is now the oldest business still associated with the downtown business district.

"Everybody left downtown except for Radium Photo and G&L Hot Dogs," he joked.

"My kids never really got a chance to see what Western Avenue was like when we had our department stores and our little family businesses. It was a really cool downtown," said Cihak.

A lot also has happened to the photography industry in the last 10 or 15 years. Digital technology made a profound impact on companies like Radium, which was a film processing lab, among other things, since it opened for business.

"Technology is a wonderful thing, but in our heyday, when we were running hundreds of rolls of film a day, I had 17 employees here. Digital has reduced that number down to five. So it has cost a lot of jobs — as a lot of technology has," said Cihak.

Digital also has had a negative effect on the old-time professional photography studios, said Cihak.

"So many parents are taking their own senior (high school) photos today with a little digital camera and getting a nice picture, and they bring them in here and we make their wallets and their 8-by-10s. It saves them from having to go to a studio," he said.

"We found new avenues" to follow, he said — but those still involve photography. Its main business now is making prints for professional photographers from throughout Michigan, who send their digital files to Radium over the Internet. Ninety-nine percent of the pros are shooting digital images, which leaves 1 percent who are still shooting film — and Radium still processes and prints film, too, including black-and-white.

Families with slides that they can no longer view take them to Radium for scanning onto CDs or DVDs, and the business is still a camera store, being an authorized dealer of Canon cameras and equipment.

In MacKenzie Cihak Richardson, Radium has graphic design capability, which some of its professional customers use for creation of their proof books. Her work also has involved the hot new market in photo calendars for businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Over the years, Radium hasn’t really eliminated anything it offers its customers, said Richardson.

Radium has long been a photography studio, and did a lot of school photography, at least since the early 1930s, said Cihak. Ironically, Radium is now probably doing more photography than it did in its early years, according to Cihak.

"We specialize in youth sports groups," he said, including soccer leagues, baseball and football, among others.

In the last few years, downtown Muskegon has begun to enjoy a new vitality, with new construction here and there and the new culinary school just opened by Baker College.

"We've gone through a lot of tough times in downtown Muskegon," said Cihak, to the point where there were a lot of sand piles and vacant lots.

"But you know, I just didn't want to leave here because I'm hoping for a rebirth. We don't have the foot traffic we once had, but with our photography, it's really not necessary anyway."

He noted the "improvements and positive signs" downtown lately that indicate Muskegon may be starting a comeback.

"If they get this place going again, I wouldn't mind anchoring it for another hundred years," joked Cihak.

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