Interview with Gray of Grays of Westminster

By Paul McKay

Grays of Westminster is a bastion of the London photography scene: anyone wandering over Vauxhall bridge or meandering through Pimlico during the past 30 years will have come across the dark blue shopfront and proud claim 'Exclusively Nikon!' And any photography shop that has survived the three decades spanning the digital revolution must have a special owner at the helm: in this case it is Mr Gray Levett! He has kindly agreed to answer some of our questions about the shop's history, his personal relationship with photography, and where he sees the future of film...

Hello Gray! Please tell us a little about your personal photography journey. How did you enter the industry and what drew you in?

I had always been interested in photography and when I was about the age of nine  my parents bought me a Kodak Brownie 127 roll film camera. In my early teens I gravitated to  cheap 35mm compact cameras. However, it was not until 1966 that I found myself making choices and decisions with regards to my future after seeing Michelangelo Antonioni’s provocative masterpiece, Blow-up, which was nominated for two Academy Awards. It starred David Hemmings as a fashionable young photographer (loosely based I understand on David Bailey) set in London, shooting with a Nikon F that was the catalyst. The film included the sequence of The Yardbirds, playing in a London club featuring Jimmy Page (later of Led Zeppelin) and Jeff Beck that precipitated my growing interest not only in rock music but photography in general and Nikon in particular.

My first job in the photographic world was in my late teens for a company called Hartle Photographic in Bournemouth. The proprietor there was not only very knowledgeable about cameras and photography, but possessed an old fashioned psyche that pursued with absolute conviction the concept of using traditional methods of dealing with customers from the more deferential age of the 1940s. He worked like an old military commander himself and put his staff through a similar regimen, involved in cleaning, dusting and presentation. Every day he would walk in and ask me to define a photographic term and if I was hesitant he flunked me and sent me scurrying for a dictionary. However, it was not enough to remember what a word meant one had to be able to demonstrate and apply it. Additionally, one had to wear a decent suit, a white shirt, tie and highly polished shoes. As well as ensuring sure that each customer was treated with respect and offering him or her the highest standards of service.

Gray Levett | Analogue Wonderland

I used to listen to John Peel’s midnight show on Radio 1, where he played the sort of bands and artists that were not being played anywhere else. Bands like Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, The Incredible String Band, Tyrannosaurus Rex (later T Rex with Marc Bolan),  Led Zeppelin etcetera. John Peel was a big musical  inspiration and as a result my involvement with photography and camera equipment evolved side-by-side with an increasing interest in the blues and rock bands of the time. I worked in the camera shop as it allowed me to buy at a reduced price the 35mm SLR I could not otherwise afford. But it was still a long way away from a Nikon F though!

Every Friday night I would go to a club called the Ritz, a low bow-windowed 1950’s ballroom overlooking the sea in Bournemouth.  As much as I enjoyed it I soon realised that the club featuring a local blues band vainly trying to interest and excite a handful of poor students nursing half pints of lager was not going to last. I decided to write to the management and sent him a list of the bands I thought they should book.  Much to my surprise the manager wrote back saying they agreed with me and the following week based upon my recommendations, Jethro Tull played to huge sold-out crowd, in fact I was lucky to get into the venue! This successful launch was followed by bands like Black Sabbath, Fleetwood Mac (featuring Peter Green) Ten Years After, The Nice with keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson (later of Emerson, Lake & Palmer) and many others. This was a period just before most of these acts went very big. I recall the manager wryly saying to me “we cannot afford to book Pink Floyd as they cost £1000 a night!”

I was introduced to Rod Stewart very early on when he was playing the clubs up and down the country backed by a local Southampton band The Soul Agents. I bought him a drink and when he asked me if I was coming into the club to see the band I said after paying for our drinks I could not afford it. “Not a problem” said Rod. “I’ll tell them you are our roadie!” I met him again a few years ago in the shop and we reminisced on those far off days. His career was in its infancy and he was broke but he loved the challenge and excitement.

Any anecdote that involves buying a drink for Rod Steward is pretty special! So what has been your favourite photography set-up, either now or your favourite of all time?

I love the Nikon D850 with 14-24mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm. The new Nikon Z series of mirrorless cameras are really making an impact and I am looking forward to trying one out. I have a great affection for my old, much battered black Nikon F which sits on the shelf in my office.

It's a lovely camera. Early on you made the decision to work exclusively with Nikon - a true leader of the photography industry, but it still looks brave to deliberately not sell a lot of great competitor cameras. What gave you the confidence this strategy would work?

I had spent some years living and working in Los Angeles straddling work in the music, movie and publishing areas but after a number of years I decided to return to the UK on a visit to see my sister Susie in London.  I moved into a room in her flat in Pimlico and took up a position working as Head of Promo for a small indie record label that also had a keyboard hire company and a couple of recording studios. I enjoyed it very much but there was always at the back of my mind a desire to do something special in the photographic world. My sister Susie offered me a small room next to the kitchen in her flat to work from and I scraped together £100 and placed tiny, inexpensive classified advertisements in Amateur Photographer magazine. The harsh actuality was that I had very little equipment to sell in those early days but a line of credit from a former employer help set me up dealing in second-hand equipment. It was an interesting initiation. In the first one or two weeks the phones only rang a couple of times a day, if I was lucky, but I took the time to study and research the second-hand photographic market in depth until we eventually made a enough sales to give the business of formal kick-start.  I had a tiny room, no money, no cameras and an old door turned into a desk supported either in by two metal red filing cabinets plus a couple of chairs and a  telephone.

There were plus points of course, with a combination of almost non-existent overheads and my prior knowledge of working in the photographic trade in different areas catering for both the amateur and hardworking professional photographers were valuable experience. The business built up a small but steady clientele. We sold Nikon, Canon, Minolta, Pentax, some Leica, medium format Hasselblad, Mamiya and Bronica. As we grew our customers became increasing interested in visiting us, thus it became imperative to consider moving into shop premises to accommodate the expanding business. A vacant shop property was eventually found, an old-fashioned hairdressers in Churton  Street, Pimlico called White Barbers. Furthermore, local legend had it that the same barbers had been used by Winston Churchill who lived nearby during World War II.

It struck me one day reading Amateur Photographer that in those days was a quite a thick magazine and adverts formed about a third of its content that we offered nothing special that set us apart from any other dealer apart from the fact we had a minute stock and no money. I knew we had to do something or we would vanish.   

The solution came from an improbable area. On a very hot day in July 1991, I was walking alongside the Thames in the newly developed Docklands, seeking shelter from the heat. I ducked into one of the many large warehouses that had been converted into expensive apartments above the ground floor and shops below including restaurants. I bought a chilled beer and while I was sitting there I noticed was that all the shops, many of them offering expensive wares were empty. Then I spotted a shop called the Christmas Shop which, even in the heat wave, was packed with customers buying Christmas tree ornaments and decorations. In spite of its unlikely merchandise for the time of year, this highly specialist enterprise had somehow caught the imagination of a market in recession and was flourishing.

I went into the shop and spoke to the manager and he said we get this all the time, people are so surprised to see us that they come in, many of them tourists and buy Christmas trinkets or gifts as a souvenir of their visit to London and we are busy nearly all the time.

Mulling this over my walk on back along the river Thames I had one of those Road to Damascus revelations. Why didn’t I create an exclusively Nikon outlet? Thus a period followed of research that revealed that there didn’t seem to be one anywhere else in the world offering Nikon-only. I had always admired Nikon for their superb engineering and quality of their lenses. After some analysis I discovered that the periods which have been particularly successful for us over the previous years we are coincident with the times that we had dealt with more Nikon equipment and any other brand. I also wanted to create a world-class camera store, offering a service that was second to none.

Thus the germ of an idea was created that we would become a specialist outlet for Nikon enthusiasts and professionals alike. It would be a place that would sell new and second-hand contemporary Nikon bodies lenses and accessories, and exclusive purveyor for the collector of vintage Nikon, and a focal point for Nikon users everywhere. It would also mean that the photographer could purchase absolutely everything he or she needed in the way of Nikon equipment from one source. The immediate reaction from my contemporaries in the trade was not favourable.  The general opinion seemed to be that it would never work and I would be out of business within six months. The more they told me it wouldn’t work, the more determined I was to make sure that it did. After all there were a number of specialist stores around the world selling specialising in Leica . Why not become Grays of Westminster exclusively…Nikon?

With hindsight it seems obvious but I still admire the jump! You sell a lot of second-hand equipment and camera, but also the most up-to-date releases and tech. Have you noticed a change in the mix between the two recently, and if so why?

I don't think that the second-hand to new equipment ratio has changed much, and if so, only incrementally. We have had another bout of people buying brand-new F6 bodies though!

There are always those photographers who want something fresh; the latest and greatest in sensor technology or optics, versus those who are more than happy to wait for their desired camera to be discontinued so that they can then pick up a bargain. At the moment, as you know, film is making a massive resurgence but rather than us selling more film cameras than a few years ago, I would say the demographic to whom we are selling has gotten much younger.

What do you think the modern photographer is most interested in? What are your customers requesting the most?

Professionals want the tool that they can rely on to get the shot, most certainly. Beginner photographers usually want the smallest camera they can find that will produce them the best quality image.

We find that amateurs fall into the two categories I mentioned earlier of those riding the latest tech phase versus those who are still happily using film or older digital cameras, although with the Nikon Z system having just reached its one-year anniversary we are seeing a lot of uptake in those!

Grays is over 30 year’s old and survived the move from analogue digital mix with aplomb. How did you navigate the change and where there any particularly hairy moments?

Never a day goes by without a hairy moment or two - that is the charm of working in an industry that is both an eclectic mix of wild creatives and studious science types. Because photography really is the slightly unusual combination of not just being aesthetic, but also being a highly technical subject, we try to appeal to everyone both with our slightly old-world view on customer service, our technical knowledge and primarily our staff. The staff are all artists, photographers and creatives in their own right, whilst also having enough product knowledge to navigate even the trickiest of technical questions. By staying on top of the latest developments whilst also understanding Nikon's heritage, I think we have the right combination of elements to continue at least another 35 years!

I must admit a vested interest in this next question. The role of small, independent, community-focused shops up against commercial behemoths... How does Grays continue to stand-out in a world of increasing Amazon-dominance?

By offering an experience that huge organisations companies such as Amazon cannot offer, a highly personalised service. A friendly, knowledgeable person to speak to who will guide you through every step of your purchase answer any technical queries and ensure you are completely satisfied with your transaction.

I see us as a piece of retail theatre and every morning we raise the curtains on a new day and a new very special production. We are based  in a lovely period shop, there are no counters, we have desks and chairs, no one wears a plastic name badge.

You ask what is a shop like Grays of Westminster? Is it a mere place to buy things, or a window on the world? Grays of Westminster has always been the latter, and for over 34 years its front windows have hosted an ever-changing display of breathtaking images taken by inspired Nikon photographers. A Grays of Westminster window is not there to alert you to reductions in camera prices or to advertise how much you may care to spend on lenses. Rather it remains defiantly artistic, its aim to inspire and captivate, perhaps to invite you to take out your camera and shoot images for the pure joy of creation and then, if you are so inclined, share those images with others.

As we breach the uncharted territory of our thirty-fifth year we always look at how to improve our service. At our heart beats a timeless passion for the highest standards. It lies perhaps in our constant and unstinting endeavour to relate to our customers with the spirit, courtesy and empathetic enthusiasm now so often lost to the modern world, to attend to detail because it practically matters, to inform and advise because we can, and, finally, to afford to each and every one of our customers the same grace, willingness and good manners that we believe is every customer’s due.

Grays of Westminster has built its reputation upon the provision of the finest of Nikon and unparalleled level of excellence in its service.

What has been your personal highlight of the shop’s lifespan?

Without a doubt becoming the first camera shop to be granted a Coat of Arms by Her Majesty’s College of Arms. I was completely stunned that we achieved this acknowledgement.

That is incredible... And are there any particular low points?! Or memorable incidents where things didn't quite go to plan?

Where to begin! I vividly recall a gentlemen walking in some six years after we had opened the shop. You will recall that it had been a barber shop for over 100 years I asked him how I could help him and  he asked me for “a short back and sides”! When I explained that we were a camera shop and had been there for over six years he got very annoyed and said “but I was one of their best customers! With that walked out slamming the front door behind him! The irony of his statement was that if he was one of their best customers and he had not been in for six years how come his hair wasn’t hanging down below his waist!

Another chap came in and was standing waiting to be served as we were very rather busy I apologised and said I hope you don’t mind waiting as we are rather busy, but I’ll get to you as soon as possible he replied “that’s not a problem”. When I came to serve him and asked him what he wanted he replied “ I want to see your selection of flies”. Noting the puzzlement on my face he went on to explain that the flies were to be used for fly-fishing. I pointed out to him that we only sold Nikon camera equipment to which he replied “I wondered what all these cameras were doing in the fishing tackle shop!”  Some people, are alas, cut off from the fruits of observation.

Ha! So no plans to open up a joint camera/fishing venture then?

How do you think the worlds of analogue and digital photography will co-exist in the future?

I believe that film will continue to grow, much like vinyl, with dyed-in-the-wool film photographers and students alike continuing to push its success. In terms of digital, it appears that mirrorless cameras are certainly the future that many manufacturers are looking towards, including Nikon. I expect that smaller, lighter cameras with performance that puts the bodies of today to shame will be a reality before too long.

Gray - thank you SO MUCH for your time. Sitting here with Analogue Wonderland less than two years old it is truly inspiring to listen to a genuine veteran of retail and - aside from the entertainment of your stories - there is much for me to reflect upon. Thank you and here's to another 30 years of Grays of Westminster!

You can visit Grays of Westminster at 40 Churton St, London SW1V 2LP or on their website Grays of Westminster. They are also active on Instagram, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter

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