Peter Doe, the proprietor of Photo Market, on Forest Avenue in Portland, passed away Sept. 16 at the age of 65. Peter was a big supporter of The Bollard/Mainer and Portland Buy Local. In a remembrance posted online, photojournalist Jack Milton called him “an important part of Maine’s photography community as a store owner, a member of the Portland Camera Club, a resource for all things photographic, and as a friend.” Photo Market recently marked its 35th year in business, and is one of the few independent camera shops and film processors left in this state.
Peter will not soon be forgotten, because he was unforgettable — a unique Portland character possessed of, and by, a mad genius. The last time I saw him, in late August, I’d marveled again at his ability to run a functioning enterprise.
Peter sat surrounded, as usual, by towering stacks of paper: old invoices and orders, scribbled notes, catalogues, junk mail. Who knew, other than Peter, what was in those teetering piles? (One sure as hell dared not touch them.) Other areas of the store were in similar disarray — heaps of camera paraphernalia clogging the mere suggestion of “aisles” — yet one never doubted that Peter could find exactly what you needed the moment you figured out what it was.
Granted, that moment could be long in arrival. What especially impressed me was Peter’s mastery of the confounding world of cameras, all the makes and model numbers, capabilities and compatibilities that change ever so slightly every single year. The ease with which he conversed in the dizzying lexicon of the industry reflected his long experience and his brilliance.
I pity all the poor sales reps who walked into Photo Market over the decades unprepared to encounter this man. If Peter was busy — and he usually was — he’d brusquely dismiss you with a “Not today, thanks!” and a smile that doubled as a flash of fangs. If he did have time to chat, you’d better be able to block off at least 45 minutes to listen to his stories and opinions, the stocks of which were as bottomless as the mountains of merchandise.
Being the primary ad salesperson for this publication, I’d stop by once or twice a month to see if Peter wanted to run his ad and, if so, pick up a check a week later. After many years of this, I learned to just drive by if there was more than one car in the parking lot, and to bring a chocolate Holy Donut to sweeten the deal. But sometimes I’d pull in, take a minute to write out the invoice, and watch through the windshield in horror as an old shutterbug beat me to the front door, knowing their seemingly simple query could launch Peter into a disquisition of excruciating length.
Peter was a dedicated listener (and frequent caller) to conservative talk-radio station WGAN. Politically, he was so far right and I’m so far left that, more often than not, we agreed. We could always find common ground on subjects like the importance of independent businesses and the worthlessness of politicians. And he had a wickedly dry sense of humor.
That said, after some of our last conversations, I’d worried Peter was edging close to the abyss of conspiracy theories like QAnon, dipping his toe in the really dark shit. And, truth be told, I felt slightly offended the final time I saw him. It was an offhand remark he made about something we published. He couldn’t remember who wrote it or what it was about, but the author, he said, just kept saying, “‘I’m a victim, I’m a victim,’” and that repulsed him.
I’m comfortable with such criticism, yet I felt frustrated that Peter would say such a thing without even knowing what he was talking about, rendering his complaint impossible to rebut. I debated — not for the first time in the past dozen years — whether I should continue to solicit his business. Why should I subject myself to this crank’s unpredictable moods and conceited soliloquies month after month? Was it really worth the 120 bucks?
But I knew then what I’ve known for a long time. No, the money didn’t matter that much. I kept coming back because I genuinely liked and admired the guy. I’d remember the few occasions when we got to socialize outside the shop, at Buy Local events — how proud Peter was of his daughter, Rachel, a gifted jazz and pop singer who performs with a wedding band called The Waiters.
In between rants about public officials, details of Peter’s personal life spilled out over the years, and the picture they revealed was one of a remarkably caring person flailing, as we all are, against a tidal wave of ignorance and indifference. Peter persevered as his field collapsed beneath his feet, film giving way to digital photography and, nowadays, not even cameras, but phones. He weathered the onslaught of big-box stores and online bullies, and was navigating this catastrophic pandemic with characteristic grit until cancer finally snuffed out his flame.
I’ll always be grateful to Peter for his generous and cantankerous spirit. Take a moment to reflect on the millions of photographs, innumerable memories, all precious to someone, captured and preserved through his tireless life’s work. Were those pictures collected and stacked like the scraps of paper in his shop, Peter Doe’s towering achievement would be obvious to all the world.