The “Quik-Pix Digital Photo Lab” sign above the front door was cracked and peeling, faded to a vintage appearance. Akm Alam – the store’s owner – stood in the doorway, waving with both hands. Old Kodak batteries hung on the walls in yellowed plastic packaging, relics from another era.
“I’m so glad you found me!” he said, gesturing to the weathered storefront. “I was only supposed to be here for three years, so I didn’t spend too much on the sign.”
This was QuikPix’s new home, sandwiched between an AutoZone and a beauty supply shop, a ten-minute walk away from the University of Southern California’s University Park campus.
Alam was the oldest tenant in the former University Village shopping center before USC ended his lease in 2014 to make way for the $700 million USC Village complex. He said he received $17,500 from the university to help him relocate his business until the project was completed in 2018. But when those three years were up, Alam found the new retail spaces went to big-name stores like Target and Trader Joe’s rather than local businesses like his.
“I don’t drive past [the Village],” he said, “it hurts my heart too much – the one time I did, tears just streamed down my face. When I moved [to this new space], it became my second home.”
Born and raised in Bangladesh, Alam attended the University of Dhaka, where he says he received his bachelor’s in finance and his master’s in accounting before coming to the U.S. in 1981. He worked briefly as an accountant but was determined to be a business owner. He entered into the photo development industry at the advice of a friend – though he said the business declined as digital cameras rose in popularity.
“My wife wishes I would return to accounting,” he acknowledges, “but I tell her there is so much more to life than money… We can find wealth in our happiness if not our business.”
Alam describes the students who frequent the store as his “bloodline,” and says he considers them his children.
“I know all of [the students],” he said. “I never forget their names… It makes my day to see them.”
Alam said he’s noticed an uptick in the use of film cameras in the last five years, which he said saved his business. He has customers who have graduated from USC but continue to send him film to develop, spanning from San Diego to London. They sometimes include notes with their rolls, which decorate the store’s walls.
Mason Robinson, a USC senior, started a GoFundMe for Alam in early February 2021 to help him keep QuikPix’s doors open. Robinson described Alam as his “go-to guy,” saying “he always has the biggest smile on his face… He’s beyond generous and just loves helping people to preserve their memories.” Robinson’s efforts have raised over $3500 thus far, which Alam says has been instrumental in keeping up with rising rent costs.
Alam’s affection for his adopted family comes from loss. His son, Azfar (“Sunny”), died in an accident in 2015 while he was a senior at the University of California, San Diego. Alam says his interactions with USC students make the grieving process easier. He beamed with pride when he spoke about Sunny, and eagerly pulled out photos of him.
“He was perfect… He taught me to be patient, and to always be grateful for my present moment,” he recalled.
He said this learned patience has been especially useful recently. Early last year, Alam was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease (MND). MND causes nerve cell degeneration, which impacts reflexes and makes it difficult for the brain to control muscle movement. The disease is terminal, but the timeline varies by case.
Alam said he’s not afraid of death so long as he doesn’t suffer. He says he’s had students offer to help him out in the store in their free time but said he’s waiting to accept help until it’s absolutely necessary.
“No matter what, I just don’t want to be a drain on my family or anyone. I must make it clear that I can take care of myself,” he said.
Towards the end of our conversation, a USC student came in with a roll of film to be developed. Alam greeted her by name, and the two caught up like old friends. Alam struggled to detach the film from its casing, saying his hands were especially weak today. He offered either to take it home to his wife or to teach the student how. She said she has some time to spare, so Alam talked her through the process of unspooling the film from the reel and loading it into a light-safe canister so that he could develop it for her later.
“This must take a lot of practice,” she exclaimed as she watched him. “I’m afraid I’m going to mess it up!” Alam laughed and reassured her, saying, “Yes, but with patience, you’ll learn… these are your memories in here, we’ll take care of them.”