There have been camera shops in the Holborn area for over 150 years. And just under a century ago the multi-faceted entrepreneur Norman Lewis took over a going concern in Holborn itself. He carried over the trading title of his father Richard’s chemist shop in North London—R.G.Lewis. In earlier years he had operated a photographic developing and processing business on the first floor above Richard’s shop in Enfield and photography was in his blood.
Norman was one of the first to take an interest in the new Leica world of “miniature photography” in the late 20s and he propelled R.G.Lewis into becaming the country’s leading Leica specialist. Norman Lewis was a successful travel writer who was constantly trekking the globe, calling in to Holborn every few months to replenish the coffers. In his wonderful autobiography, Semi-invisible Man (link below), he outlines his early years in Enfield, his involvement with his father’s chemists shop and his rise in the world of Leica.
Incredibly, Norman was also a spy for the British security services in the years leading up to the Second World War and for some time afterwards. His profession as travel writer and successful businessman meant that he could wander the world, Leica in hand, without raising the slightest suspicion. A contemporary and friend of Ian Fleming, Norman Lewis probably found some facet of himself in the character of James Bond. Bond would have owned a Leica.
Len Lyons, the current face of R.G.Lewis has had a long career in the photographic business, rising to become a director of the one-time premier chain, Dollands(subsequently taken over by Dixons). One day he was sent to negotiate to the purchase of the R.G.Lewis business from Norman. Later, in 1982 when Dollands was sold, Len acquired R.G.Lewis as his new baby.
Over the past few years I have built up a good relationship with Len who is unfailingly knowledgeable, courteous and helpful. His little shop in Southampton Row was a regular stop on my travels around London. I would often call in for a chat with Len, Barry or Walter and I will miss this immensely.
On the bright side, from a customer point of view, There is just over a month to visit Len’s shop and see what bargains there are to be had. I know that there is a vast amount of historic photographic gear stored there and a visit is highly recommended.
Leica enthusiasts throughout the UK will be upset to hear of Len’s decision to close down. It is truly unfortunate that the company could not have continued in some form but, as Len himself says, the modern photographic market is a cutthroat business, even for a Leica dealer. The demise of R.G.Lewis is a loss not only for the Leica community but for photographic retailing in general. The store at 29 Southampton Row, Holborn, is one of the last of its kind.
Small family businesses such as R.G.Lewis are closing down every year. Yet there is a vast gulf between the impersonal approach of the big high street and internet retailers and the old-world charm and personal service afforded by the likes of R.G.Lewis.
Norman Lewis’s autobiography is available in Kindle or hardback from Amazon:
My apologies that I am not able to include more photographs of the shop and Len. I have many, but they are in London and I am in Athens. I will add more to this article when I return.