Throughout the summer and fall months we’ve featured those individuals that have made a difference in the schools, the athletics, and the tapestry of area culture. None more so than the man that brought the art of fulfilling a dream to downtown Troy.
He turned 86 last week, and except for the fact of his battle with Parkinson’s disease you’d swear that Roy Baker was a capable as he was from 1988 through 2005, when his BK Photo and Gallery store at 15 S. Market helped put Troy’s downtown on the regional and national map.
“I’m doing fine,” he told me during a recent visit. “Mr. Parkinson keeps turning up the pressure, but I’m keeping up with him. Still trying to play Pickle Ball whenever I can.”
Optimism has always seen Roy Baker through good and bad times, and now is no time to deviate. He is the quintessential “dance with the girl you brought”, and he’s not about to change.
A former educator and principal in the Tipp City schools, Baker had a dream of being a local businessman, having grown up around retail outside Oneida, Kentucky, where he helped his father and family run a feed and grain store. He enjoyed people, which was his motivation to teach, but more…he wanted to turn his photography hobby into something that he could share gainfully. And thus, he and a friend, Floyd Kenny, opened BK Photo in the basement of Baker’s Tipp City home in 1967. A year later they moved their growing concern to West Main Street, in Troy, where they bought the old Richardson’s Camera Store.
Baker and Kenny were retail soulmates, and quickly established BK Photo as a destination business along the wide streets of downtown Troy. Within a few short years they outgrew the limited space where Hittle’s Jewelry Store now exists, and having a vision for even greater growth in the future, Baker bought the old two-story hardware building at 15 S. Market Street. Half of it he used for retail, and the other half he turned into rental apartments.
By the mid-80s he was making a little money, but he believed he could do better. You win with people, as Woody Hayes once wrote, and Baker set out to up his ante in downtown Troy. Floyd Kenny left the business, and about that same time I was looking to up my own ante…and Baker and I shook hands on a deal that brought me to Troy from Click Camera, in Dayton, in August of 1988 to be his sales manager.
Baker was bold, unafraid, and upon completing my first week with him he took me across the street to the bank, handed me the company checkbook, and said, “Go do business like I know you know how. I’ve done the best I can. Now I’d like to see how someone else can do.” I’m sure our collective critics said…it couldn’t be done. Not in Troy, Ohio!
I had spent eight years in Dayton, had made a lot of photo and camera contacts, and within weeks many of those contacts were driving up I-75 to sample the difference in retail styles between the high energy Click stores, a multi-store chain owned by the Klaben family, and the patient, accommodating personality of Roy Baker and BK Photo. They liked it, and they told others.
And as business increased our budget for marketing incrementally increased, as well. By the end of that first year we had doubled sales, from just over $300 thousand to almost $600 thousand. We didn’t stop there.
Baker doubled down. We added new products lines, an in-store mini-lab, and in 1991 we opened the art and framing gallery with the debut of Presentation Weekend, a yearly wildlife art expo that feature the top artists in the US, and across the world. Within ten short years names like David Maass, Carl Brenders, Robert Bateman, and Jack Hanna had come to Troy, swelling the downtown’s appeal to visitors from near and far.
By the year 2000 Presentation Weekend was ranked by Wildlife Art News as one of the top ten weekend shows in the country! And also that same year BK Photo topped the $1.3 million mark in annual sales.
“I never had so much fun,” says Baker now. “We were bringing people to downtown Troy that I didn’t think we could. But we did it.”
Sales continued to grow, along with the influence of downtown, attracting other new businesses while enhancing the prospects for many of the existing ones. And at the center of it all, Roy Baker simply enjoyed seeing the fulfillment of his dream. Suddenly, he was living that dream, first person!
“I enjoyed the people,” he adds. “Every day it seemed like someone was coming in that I’d never seen before, and you never knew what brought them in. One day it would be photography, the next it would be art and framing. You never knew what, or who, was coming in next.”
He was interesting beyond business. For years he piloted his own Cherokee 180 until physical issues forced him from the sky. He continued to manage the family farm in Oneida throughout the time we were together, leaving sometimes for as long as a week to go to go down there, freeze a hundred quarts of sweet corn and can a hundred quarts of green beans.
His influence proved to be a significant turning point in my life. I was never blessed with patience, but Roy Baker taught me the fine art of taking the time and the pains to see a plan come together. Years later I would laugh and tell him, “All the patience I have in this world, I owe to you.” He’d laugh, and tell me, “I was glad to help.”
“Life is as broad as it is long,” he was fond of saying.
And, he taught me that the only constant in life was change – that the moment you felt like you had things figured out, it was time to figure a new way of attracting the next generation of business. And in fact, I can count five different reinventions of BK Photo during my sixteen years of working with Roy; and many were financially painful. They required all the patience either one of us had, as staff and challenges grew. But through it all Roy stood by, smiled, and continued to press forward. Few people have I ever met that enjoyed more getting up and going to work in the morning.
“Most people say they HAVE to go to work,” he would say. “I say…I HAVE the luxury of going to the office.”
But there came a time when the realities of small business became not so gainfully enjoyable. Mandates from state and federal government meant added expense and taxes. Vendors adopted policies of doing more business with fewer dealers, and many BK Photos across the country were forced to sell or close their doors. And while Roy Baker was happy to oblige the public, he, like many others, was not so happy to play the political game of competing against Columbus and Washington, D.C.
By 2005 Baker could see the handwriting on the wall. He sold BK Photo to another would-be entrepreneur from Cleveland, who promptly gutted the business and ran it into the ground within three short years. It was a decision Baker later admitted that he regretted.
“But,” he reiterated recently, “…we really had a good run during those fifteen years. Looking back, it was all worth it because I enjoyed the people so much, and now it’s the thing that I miss the most. I miss seeing the people who came in every day to drop off a roll of film or have a cup of coffee.”
His office at his home on Finsbury Drive, in Troy, is like a step back in time. The walls are adorned with photos of those fifteen years, when we were both much younger, and at the height of seeing our respective ambitions become manifest. Roy Baker taught me that it was good to dream, to adapt, but most of all…be patient.
“And you were,” he told me last week. “You still are, apparently.”
Ah, but it hasn’t been easy. And it still isn’t. It took Roy Baker, who once proved the nay-sayers wrong, to make me realize that life really is as broad as it is long. He will always be one of the most influential people in my life – and one of my best friends.
Success is knowing…it’s a luxury to go to work!