– Czechoslovak national hero. Pioneering Australian photo retailer
Jan Novák, who has passed away at the age of 90, was ‘Mr Photography’ in the City of Newcastle, NSW, for more than 40 years, as the owner of Novak Camera House. His story has been told in his autobiography, Let’s Add a Little Oil to the Fire (pub, Zeus Publications, 2010). It documents his bravery, his determination, and his sheer grit.
What follows is a brief and very incomplete appreciation of a very remarkable man:
In this day of electronic imaging and mass distribution, it’s hard for younger industry members to imagine that the retailing world that Jan entered as a New Australian from Central Europe via South Africa in 1951, was one of recommended retail prices and quota-limited photo equipment imports, with black & white prints. When he retired just a few years ago, it was a world increasingly influenced by the Internet, digital imaging and the birth of photo books created electronically and printed with dry print methods.
He worked in wholesale, he rose to be a manager, He dreamed of his own business. He created it. Jan was one of the most determined and passionate men one could imagine. Eventually he chose the City of Newcastle, in the NSW Hunter Valley. When he joined the Camera House Group he put his heart and soul into it. In early 1983, when the original group failed (after a disastrous duty-free adventure), it was directors Jan Novak and John Miller, chairman Alan Small, who, with general manager Roger Hart and finance man Joe Magno, re-built the country’s leading independent retail co-operative and re-won the support of the suppliers.
Jan was always a pioneer. He was one of the first to install a minilab in the early eighties, a stickler for customer service, a man who understood the importance of community and the role of a regional shop in that community.
At Camera House conferences he was always present with his Nikon F3, setting an example that far too few followed. A few days later one would always receive the print of the event in the mail with a personal note.
When the devastating Newcastle earthquake caused his business to close for several months he paid all his suppliers and staff as fast as he could and never broke his word. Again he fought back.
He remained a keen flyer, a member of the local Aero Club, and always carried his mascot whenever he flew – a woolen mascot that had seen service in countless sorties across enemy lines in WW2.
One has many memories of Jan. But one stands out above all others for me. We were seated on the Newcastle boardwalk, having a delightful coffee, eight years ago, on a sparkling May day. A group of school children appeared at the café. Very quickly it was clear that Jan was becoming agitated. I thought it was perhaps their noise that was giving him trouble with his hearing aid. But he clarified, in emphatic gestures: ‘This is terrible. Here are these wonderful, bright young people, having a magnificent day out, and look: Not one camera between them! Where will be there memories of today when they are old tomorrow. Why has no one taught them how precious memories are?’
Men such as Jan Novak never bragged about their war service. But his pride in receiving a national medal of honour on a last visit to his country of birth just a few years ago is matched by the honour that those who knew and worked with him had, in the presence of a true giant of our time.
Jan Novak: We who walk this earth in freedom today, do so because of the sacrifice and courage that you and so many of your generation showed. We salute your memory, your perseverance and your passion for life.
– John Swainston
John Swainston, Maxwell MD, was a supplier to Novak Camera House for more than 25 years. Thanks to Jan, John developed a lifelong habit of always carrying a camera that has recorded many an imaging industry event.