For the 38 years they owned a business, Dennis and Dianne Wammack’s biggest competitors were out-of-state sellers who weren’t required to collect sales taxes.
From the beginning, competition came from New York mail-order sales. Still, it wasn’t until remote Internet sellers came heavily into play that the Wammacks’ Birmingham business began to suffer. After 31 years, they reduced their sales staff by half and relocated to a space at half the rent in an attempt to survive.
“Everything we did for 38 years was running uphill, and we could run uphill, but at some point, it just got too tiring,” Dennis said recently as he stood outside the empty building where Cameras Brookwood once operated.
It has been two years since the Wammacks decided to retire and close the business they started in 1977. They miss the energy their employees gave them and the comradery with their customers, but know an unbalanced tax system made their situation untenable.
“The lease was up. We could get out on our own terms, but 75 percent of the reason why we chose to close the store was because competitors didn’t have to collect sales tax,” said Dianne, who for nearly two decades traveled to Washington, D.C., almost annually to try to convince Congress to quit picking winners and losers when it comes to which retailers must collect sales taxes. A 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision set the precedence that only retailers with a physical presence in a state have to collect sales taxes. The decision though made it clear Congress could change that.
“The American people want a level playing field,” said Dennis. “The American retailer is not getting a level playing field.”
TIME FOR FEDERAL ACTION
Dianne served for six years on the executive committee for the Alabama Retail Association board, ending her service in 2013 as the association’s chairman. Besides visiting Alabama’s congressional delegation, she testified before state legislative committees and wrote letters to the editor. Still, she said, Congress “is dragging its feet.”
In 2013, the U.S. Senate approved the Marketplace Fairness Act. The U.S. House has yet to act, even though another legislative fix, the Remote Transaction Parity Act, is pending in that body.
If federal legislation had made it so all retailers – brick-and-mortar, online, catalog or telephone – have to collect sales taxes, the Wammacks’ story might be different.
“There is a high probability, we would still be around,” said Dennis. “It was just too onerous to keep going.”
Dennis and Dianne both relate how customers quizzed their sales staff on products, then bought from a source not required to collect the sales tax. Customers even bought products and supplies from the Wammacks “as insurance in case their online purchase didn’t come in on time,” said Dianne. Dennis recalls one long-time customer even returned something with the price tag from a New York supplier still attached. Dennis refunded their money anyway.
“We were always service oriented, and we tried to help everybody,” said Dianne, “but that was pretty hard when we knew they were taking advantage of our good will that we had built and then were not actually spending money with us.”
CLOSING STORE HARD DECISION
Admittedly, Dennis says Dianne was tougher than him when it came to their customers.
When they decided to close the store, “I had carte blanch to hug everybody who walked in the store and I took advantage of it,” he said. Professional photographers broke down and cried in the showroom, he added.
The Wammacks were integral to helping Birmingham area professional photographers build their businesses as well as helping build high school and college photography programs.
Brandon Robbins, who photographed the Wammacks’ portrait below, said “28 years ago, when I was 14 and taking a photography class, I got all of my stuff from him,” pointing to Dennis. When Brandon was just starting out as a professional photographer, the Wammacks allowed him to buy on account and pay when he got paid.
“Our function in life was to keep photographers going,” said Dennis. Cameras Brookwood was the lone independent photo supply and imaging business in the region. After helping find other jobs for their employees when the store closed, Dianne said her husband “worked hard at getting someone in town to stock the supplies our customers needed.”
Dennis, an aerospace engineer in his first career, said, “Ever since I was a little kid, owning my own business made me think I would be part of the community, build something of consequence and put some meaning in my life.”
Even though his dream job ended before he would have liked, Dennis said, “We got a wonderful 38 years out of it.”