“This is my— was my business,” Tom Gram caught himself. He stood beside his wife, Irene, gesturing behind them to a mountain of rubble occupying the charred, brick shell of what once was. Rode’s Camera Shop.
The uptown Kenosha establishment, started as a family business in 1911 in the home of John Rode Sr. and since situated proudly on the corner of Roosevelt Road and 22nd Avenue, has been serving the community for the past 109 years. The store was owned by three generations of John Rodes before co-workers Tom Gram and Paul Willette bought the business to become co-owners in 2012.
Tom has been pouring his life into Rode’s for the past 41 years, having worked there since graduating from Milwaukee Area Technical College. Forty-one years of investing his life, gone in one night.
“Monday night was when the rioting had first started here,” Tom told me, recalling the chaos following the police shooting of Jacob Blake that sparked protests, followed by nights of rioting and violence on Kenosha’s streets. “We had heard sirens going constantly — people, you know, racing up and down the street.” The Grams live about 10 blocks from the store.
Tom was a little worried about the business Monday night. “I walked up to the corner and looked down here, and could see there was a fire truck in the middle of the street pumping water into the business. But I couldn’t tell if it was ours, this one, that one,” Tom said, pointing to the other storefronts alongside his, now just more piles of blackened refuse. “John Rode III called me. He was down here, and he called me and he said, ‘The building is completely engulfed in flames.’ And being that there was a curfew and I wasn’t about to come down here, I waited until the next morning.”
Morning came, and Tom walked down to the corner. At 5 a.m., flames were still licking out of the roof.
“Everything,” Tom said when I asked if all his equipment was stored in this building. “Absolutely everything.” They had lost it all. After the efforts of three generations of Rodes, a 41-year partnership, and more than a century of business, a community cornerstone was gone, decimated in one night of lawlessness.
While Tom’s primary job was photo lab work, Rode’s Camera Shop provided school photography, printing for other photographers, youth sports photography, and walk-in business, to name a few — not to mention serving people who brought in rolls of film, negatives, and videos.
“So you knew pretty much everybody in the community, and they knew you?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Tom said with a smile. “It’s a very good, close community I think, and you know, most of our customers we knew by name. … They come in quite often.”
Tom said thankfully insurance will cover many of his immediate financial losses. Other business owners weren’t so fortunate — if standing in front of a pile of ashes can be considered fortuitous. Sam, the Indian-American immigrant who owns Car Source, the dealership hit at least twice by rioters who torched his entire lot of vehicles, told The Federalist insurance isn’t helping him.
— Kylee Zempel (@kyleezempel) September 2, 2020
Tom said he isn’t sure what John Rode III is planning to do with the remains of the building, which he still owns, but Tom and Irene aren’t planning to rebuild. “I’m almost 64 years old,” Tom said. “And to put all that effort into rebuilding and getting the lab equipment and everything, the customers back, I just don’t think I have it in me anymore.”
Kenosha is battered. It’s burned. It’s boarded up. Despite Tom and Irene’s profound loss and the damage surrounding them throughout this Midwestern city, the couple said they’re hopeful for Kenosha’s future. “We need to heal, and we need to work together as a community,” Tom said. “No more divisions.”