In the attention economy, getting attention sometimes seems dependent on already having it. For a small, local business in Koreatown, Tom’s One Hour Photo & Lab, attention was a scarcity. That is, until one Grammy-winning country singer, Kacey Musgraves, was in town for her Oh What A World tour and needed some film developed quickly. Kacey and her sister, Kelly Christine Sutton, who often serves as her photographer, did what anyone does in an unfamiliar city in the age of smartphones — Googled it.
After finding Tom’s unassuming shop to develop some film in a pinch, and getting into a conversation with the owners, Kacey soon decided to get some glamour shots done too, one of the many services the lab offers alongside film developing, photo restoration, and of course, passport photos. And maybe it would’ve stopped there, if Kacey and her crew hadn’t decided to take it upon themselves to create an Instagram for the shop, @tomsonehourphotolab, and spread the word about the tiny studio, which has been in business since 1991, but saw a steep decline in customers since the rise of the digital era.
While Tom Tuong and his wife Lisa — who works in a nail business full-time to help the family pay their bills — don’t even have a website for their small, beyond modest storefront on Beverly Blvd, the attention they’ve received from Kacey’s decision to big them up has been life-changing, to say the least. From The Hollywood Reporter, to The Los Angeles Times, to Stereogum and Rolling Stone, the coverage has been wall-to-wall — and their new Instagram account is hovering at close to a cool 60,000 followers.
Mom and pop businesses, local business — hell, any businesses that aren’t directly part of a larger corporate structure — are few and far between these days. Businesses that reflect a sense of the community they’re a part of, or choose to operate based on principles of a bygone era, are quickly folding under pressures like rising rent, real estate deals, and the unending capitalistic forces that destroy the past without a moment’s hesitation. Especially in Los Angeles, relics from decades ago are bulldozed or forgotten without any eulogy or farewell. If it wasn’t for Kacey, Tom’s probably wouldn’t have been too far away from a similar fate.
But, it’s also interesting to notice how quickly a community rallying around a shop like this can make a difference. In her original post, Kacey noted that the cash-only business has homemade backdrops, no internet, and speculated that Tom himself might never even see her post. And that’s the only time that she was way off the mark. Of her 1.6 million followers, plenty share the same sensibility that relics and gems of the past are just as valuable — if not more so — than the shiny, massive new brands and products that are cropping up left and right.
Capitalism teaches us that only the most efficient and successful businesses are valuable, that commercial appeal counts above all else, and that anything not producing at its maximum potential is a waste of time. But Kacey’s experiment with Tom’s One Hour Photo reveals that there are still plenty of us who don’t believe that, who are willing to go out of our way, or spend money somewhere we wouldn’t normally go, on a service we might not need, just to keep a sense of community alive.
Arguably, this is why an artist like Kacey has become so renowned and successful over the course of the last few years — her music embodies a similar set of values, like community above commercialism and relationships as more important than ego. And while some nostalgia-tinged creative work can come off hackneyed or backwards, Kacey brings her songwriting into the 21st century by underpinning it with action.
Those same principles are also the core incentives behind Cinnamon Magazine: that a small, committed group of people have the power to not just change their community, but in turn, change the world itself. That maybe things don’t have to be the biggest, brightest, and most commercially relevant to be considered successful. And that maybe businesses making money while telling their story isn’t a senseless act of greed, but a necessary part of keeping these local ecosystems going.
“I was raised in a small town, small-business household where ends sometimes were barely met. I think that’s why I have a soft spot for the dreamer... the underdog. The little guy,” Musgraves told The Hollywood Reporter. “There are thousands of places just like this in all of our neighborhoods that we walk past every day and don’t think twice about. It’s imperative we all do our best to help keep these charming little establishments afloat. They are the backbone of our country and they need us.”
Will the renewed patronage of a one-hour photo lab in Koreatown as a now-infamous tourist spot really alter the way the world unfolds? Well, it’s easy for cynics to say it won’t have any impact. But in the day-to-day lives of Tom and Lisa, it’s already made an enormous difference. And while Kacey Musgraves can’t have the same impact on every single local business in LA, telling the stories of this community is something that is a concrete goal for Cinnamon. I’ve tried to make this as clear as possible with our coverage but I think it bears specific repeating: If you’re based in LA and run a business like Tom’s, and want to get your story out there, we want to hear from you.
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