Historic camera business founded by British spy to shut down – Amateur Photographer

An independent store, the last in a chain set up by Norman Lewis – a travel writer recruited as a British spy before the Second World War – is to shut down.

London-based store RG Lewis is the sole survivor of a former chain of eight camera stores that took their name from a chemist shop first set up three years before Amateur Photographer (AP) was first published in 1884.

It adds: ‘However, due to the effects of the internet, and also changes in attitude towards the independent specialist dealer, [owner] Len Lyons has regretfully decided to retire and, therefore, the Holborn shop (at 29 Southampton Row) will close permanently on 14 June 2015.

The chemists was run by Richard Lewis whose son, Norman, opened a photographic business above the shop and took the trading name of his father’s business.

Norman Lewis was a travel writer and photographer who reportedly spied for the British government during the Second World War and was once a friend of James Bond author Ian Fleming, Lyons recalled.

Indeed, a Telegraph obituary of Lewis, who died in 2003 aged 95, states: ‘In 1959, Lewis was sent to Cuba by Ian Fleming, then working for both the Sunday Times and MI6, to discover what were Castro’s chances of ousting the Batista regime.

‘In Mission to Havana, Lewis recounted two memorable meetings: one with Ed Scott, the priapic model for James Bond, who had taken to keeping naked negresses in his office and wearing spent cartridges as cuff-links; the other with Ernest Hemingway, who by now was drinking neat half-pints of Dubonnet. “He told me nothing”,’ wrote Lewis, “but taught me more than I wanted to know”.’

The Telegraph obituary adds that, unbeknown to Lewis, his meeting with Scott in a bar was observed by author Graham Greene, who used the scene in his novel Our Man in Havana.

Reacting to news of the closure, Jason Heward, managing director of Leica Camera UK Ltd, said: ‘It is extremely sad to see RG Lewis close and many Leica customers will feel a real sense of loss on hearing the news.

‘All industries need characters and within the photographic trade they don’t come much larger than Len Lyons. I struggle to think of anyone who knows more about the industry and the history of Leica.

‘All things must change and our industry is no different but we do well to remind ourselves that many customers still seek out a far from homogenous experience.

‘Our understanding of the past is key to shaping our present and the future of the industry. I am sure we shall all miss that feeling of being “wet behind the ears” when talking to Len. He has been a great ambassador for the brand and will be sorely missed.’

Founder Norman Lewis went on to write 13 novels and 13 works of non-fiction, according to the Norman Lewis website, which adds: ‘Forgoing a place at university for lack of funds, he used the income from wedding photography and various petty trading to finance travels to Spain, Italy and the Balkans, before being approached by the Colonial Office to spy for them with his camera in Yemen.’

Mike Evans, a loyal RG Lewis customer, photographer and former journalist who wrote about the closure in a blog, told AP: ‘It’s sad to see the end of any independent camera dealer, but the closure of RG Lewis is a particularly significant loss…

Lyons does not blame online competition for the closure – though the store’s website may suggest otherwise – but he told AP: ‘All the dealers I’ve spoken to [say that] people come in to have a demo and then buy on the web.’