At Work: Converting an old church to another use

John Hoffman, co-owner of Columbus Camera Group.

Adapting a building for a use other than what it was intended is not always easy, but always appreciated. The Columbus Camera Group has had its business inside a church that was originally home to the North Congregational.

Later, the building housed the Calvary Baptist group, then BalletMet, then it was offices for several community agencies. Columbus Camera Group bought the building in 1983.

The company was founded 30 years ago by Bernard Mehl, a professor at The Ohio State University, his son, and three of his students. They all had been bitten by the shutterbug.

Mehl had been buying cameras, using them and then reselling them. Soon, all five of them were doing that, and running the operation out of Mehl’s home in Clintonville.

“That place just filled up with camera gear,” says John Hoffman. Hoffman now owns Columbus Camera Group with his business partner, Eric Mehl. Back then, they operated the entire business by mail-order. Even if you lived in Columbus.

“Now when I look back on it, it does seem sort of primitive,” he says.

They used an advertising service called Shutterbug, based out of Florida, and only catered to those interested in photography equipment. The company had a ranking system and charged by the word, so you had to be pretty specific with descriptions. There were no pictures.

A vintage time-clock that is still in use. If it’s not broken, why change it?

The Shutterbug system was rhythmic. You would get all of your ads ready, send them off, then it would publish, you’d respond to inquiries, then activity would drop off until the cycle started again.

Once the internet came along, the whole game changed.

“You have to photograph everything [you’re selling],” Hoffman says. “Computers have made our work harder. eBay never rests.”

Along the way, they ran out of space in Mehl’s home for the business.

“We were outgrowing the space,” Hoffman says. “Bernard drove by [the church] and saw a For Sale sign and said, ‘I think we should buy this’ and we did.”

Right away they had to replace the furnaces. And again as time went by.

“Financially, it’s a bit of a burden,” Hoffman says. “But the light is beautiful…aesthetically, it’s wonderful. It’s been a really beautiful place to work over the years.”

A gorgeous stained glass window.
Exposed rafters in the ceiling give the church a raw and natural feel.

They have replaced the stained glass windows with energy efficient ones as needed, but the building is still difficult to heat.

Over the years, the group has tried new revenue streams, but it keeps going back to the core business of buying and selling camera equipment. Other than changing its selling method from digital to print, the group has kept things pretty much the same.

Cameras awaiting new homes.
A room in the basement, where pictures of products are taken.

Managing their items on eBay, of which they have 300 to 450 listed all the time, is a full-time job. eBay has allowed them to sell all over the world. Globally, there are people at all stages of the photograph process, which keeps some of their older stuff that seems out of date here, in demand.

Reminders of the building’s days serving a congregation.

Their average customer is a semi-professional photographer who wants to be a professional.

“When you see someone start with no knowledge and can make it into a business, that’s gratifying to me,” says Hoffman.

Photographs of an older Columbus, as well as customer favorites decorate the sales floor.

Columbus Camera Group has recently started offering classes. It also holds monthly photo contests.

Visit them at 55 E. Blake Avenue, or at

Do you know of, have, or work in, a creative workspace and would like to be featured in this series? If so, please contact Anne Evans.