"We got one!" Those words, shouted in joy after their first customer had just left Mike and Gayle's shop, marked the 1985 startup of Snap Shot Photo. Located in a tiny store on Broadway, recently occupied by Lonesome Landing, the Vascukynas' new business was welcomed by a community that, until then, had to use mail order to get its film developed, waiting a week for its return. Now Saranac Lakers could have film processed in an hour.
Since those first modest beginnings, a lot has changed. Originally planned as a shop that developed 3-by-5-inch snapshots, the space gradually filled up with more machines. By 1991, with increased merchandise and equipment, Mike and Gayle moved to the more spacious quarters of their present location at 34 Broadway in Saranac Lake.
Through the years, the business has expanded to first include a darkroom, then the equipment to make 11-by-14-inch enlargements, take passport photos and eventually do digital work such as: converting movies and videos to DVDs, slides to CDs, 24-inch wide format photos and fine- detailed film development. Mike took to the computer work.
Gayle and Mike Vascukynas
(Photo —Caperton Tissot)
"It just comes naturally to me," he said about his ability to understand and learn the complexities of the technology. He has also learned to take apart and repair their many large and expensive pieces of equipment, which tend to break down, comments Mike, precisely when a deadline has to be met.
The couple's shop offers every kind of picture frame imaginable, as well as a variety of camera equipment and accessories. In addition, they display and sell their own striking photographs of Adirondack landscapes and flowers, available either as framed enlargements or as note cards.
Mike and Gayle first met when they were both living in Ontario, N.Y., where he was working in a body and fender business and she was employed by the Xerox Company. Within a six week period, they married, moved to Saranac Lake and opened Snap Shot Photo. Here is the amazing part. This prosperous business started with nothing more than an impulse purchase. On a visit to a mall, Gayle spotted a Konica photo processing machine and said, "That's it!" She and Mike decided to buy it and start a photography business.
Previously, Mike and Gayle had driven through Saranac Lake and liked the look of the place. That was good enough for them, even though when they first set up business here, Broadway and Main Street had a fair share of empty storefronts. At the time, their photography experience consisted of taking snapshots with a Brownie. Undeterred, they leased shop space, bought a trailer in Gabriels, went to New Jersey for a week of training at the Konica photo processing school and were launched.
Quick to learn and diligent about delivering the very best product and service, they have built up, more than 24 years, a solid profitable business. While they attribute their success to the loyalty of local residents, it is clear this loyalty was earned. Both Mike and Gayle are always warm and friendly, welcoming you to their shop as if it was their living room, and in a sense it is. Though Mike says Gayle is better with customers than he is, tourists and residents find them both extremely generous and hospitable. Mike has helped a number of people figure out digital camera software for their computers (for free I might add). Gayle never failed to stuff "extras" in the bag when returning developed film to a customer. It was either free film, extra copies of special pictures or coupons toward free development for the next set of negatives.
"We have worked hard," says Gayle, "at times working until 2 or 3 in the morning if we had promised an order for the next day."
"Having your own business," Mike said, "means you can't shut the door on Friday and take off for a weekend of fishing." This is particularly meaningful as in Mike's youth, he loved to hunt and fish. He thought when he moved to Saranac Lake that it was going to be the perfect place to continue these activities. In fact, he says, since "I moved here, the fishing pole went into a corner and the gun has stayed in a closet."
"When you're working for yourself, you've got to be here," explains Gayle. Six days a week in the shop, working until 6 or 7 at night, are followed by a "free" Sunday during which Mike does the books for the business and Gayle cleans the house and cooks meals for the next week. Occasionally they go out for breakfast at DJ's Rustic Restaurant or Gus's Adirondack Diner in Gabriels. They do take a week and a half vacation every spring. Five days are spent cleaning the shop, and a week is spent on a cruise. But even then, Gayle can't stay quiet. She spends the whole time taking photos, 600 on their last cruise.
One of their annual projects involves going out to the Ice Palace late at night after it is first lit, and taking color photos. They return early the next morning to take a second set in the daylight. Come Carnival time, everyone looks forward to seeing this collection of palace shots, accumulated since 1987, displayed in Snap Shot's front window. The photos, sold as 4x6, enlargements or magnets, are quickly bought up by tourists and residents alike.
Now, with retirement planned for sometime this summer, Mike's and Gayle's, thoughts turn to "what next?" Can this hard-working couple actually sit still? It is doubtful. Gayle talks of first staying home, painting, cleaning out and organizing all their "stuff." "We bought our home 11 years ago and we haven't even had time to paint the walls." They are still covered in white primer," she reveals. Mike shrugs his shoulders, laughs and says, "White goes with everything."
They had bought land in Paul Smiths in 1991. In 1998 they ordered a modular home. Gayle said they were anxious for it to arrive but knew that when it did, they would be unable to take time off to see it placed. One day, their neighbor, Bob Lefler, walked into the shop and said, "Here's your house. It just arrived and I was over there taking pictures of the crane lifting it onto the foundation."
Mike said he thinks he may finally get to go fishing and he's really looking forward to it. As for hunting, however, he plans to shoot wildlife with a camera instead of a gun. He will also probably continue to do some wide format printing and work with DVDs.
Gayle says that after working for 44 years, she would never be able to just sit at home. She plans to do volunteer work and perhaps get a part-time job.
On the brink of retirement, they look back and comment.
"It has been challenging, we've enjoyed it," says Gayle. Mike adds, "I wouldn't trade it, it's been great." Whatever they do, the community will miss the chance to visit this warmhearted couple in their shop but looks forward to seeing their familiar faces around town. May the next exclamation of "got one!" refer to Mike catching a fish or to Gayle finding a part-time job.
Based on an interview with Mike and Gayle Vascukynas. Caperton Tissot can be reached at Tissot@SnowyOwlPress.com.