It is a little surprising that the oldest shop in Florence, Italy, opened in 1910. Somehow you’d expect a few concerns operating for centuries in one space, like Berry Bros. & Rudd in London. Still, Florentines and tourists have bought cameras and film, eyeglasses and shades at Umberto Dei Ottica Fotografia for 103 years. What’s more astonishing, Mario Baracchi has been behind the counter at via de’ Pecori 19, a block from the Piazza del Duomo, for 70 years.
I am not the first of those visitors to write about Baracchi. The Florentine, the excellent English-language ex-pats’ magazine, ran this short profile two years ago. His incremental entry into the small shop is as described, but he did not seem annoyed by my arrival. I asked him, as I’ve learned to ask all Italians, parla inglese? — Do you speak English? — and he said, “Yes.” I was searching for hard-to-find 120 roll film and the display of old cameras in the shop window, with the recessed entry, had snared me. Baracchi had it, but also contrary to The Florentine correspondent’s experience, he sold it to me.
Also, he was eager to talk. He told me about an exploding mine killing his friend and wounding him — this must have been in 1944, a year after he started as an apprentice at the shop; no doubt he was pressed into service as Axis fortunes declined — and about meeting Hitler and Mussolini, presumably as a child when Hitler visited the city in 1938 or 1940. And he told me about the 1966 flood that nearly wiped out the shop, before I had to rejoin my study abroad group, which was bound for the Accademia that morning. Baracchi gave me a card for a cafeteria on the next block and said I would get 10 percent off with it.
I shot all four rolls (some results here) and returned several days later. This time I loaded my Lubitel at the counter while chatting with Baracchi about Florence, his shop and his family. His wife is dead, a son is in Australia, a nearby daughter is involved in animal rescue. Business has been slow, as it has been throughout Italy, and you get the sense Baracchi’s inventory and business model are not working the tourist trade efficiently. He has a few digital cameras and some film, but does not sell from his “museum” of old cameras and the shop also sells optics (the Ottica part). Baracchi said he keeps the store open mostly to meet people. He spotted an irregularity in the way a lens was fitted into my (yes, Italian) frames and spent about five minutes working on it. He would not take payment so I dropped a 2-euro coin into the donation cup he keeps for his daughter’s animal welfare group. Before I left, I took this photo of Baracchi, but the Lubitel’s widest setting is f/4.5 and I could not get enough light, even in the doorway, from an overcast morning. (I worked on the scan a little in Aperture.)
Later, I redeemed the cafeteria card on a tasty tortellini en brodo and the cashier gave me a knowing smile with my 10 percent off.