Harrow Technical: The Robin Gowing Interview

I’m going to detail at some point how I got embroiled with the Pentax MX, and almost escaped, and then, just when I thought I was out, got pulled back in. For now, I’ll just admit that recently I bought a particular MX knowing full well it had a problem, and planning to send it to Harrow Technical for the cure. In this manner, I reasoned, I would get the camera cheap and then end up with a perfect MX that I could trust. The devil made his usual appearance in the details, but I still ended up with a not-quite-cheap perfect MX thanks to the excellent service provide by one Robin Gowing, the man behind, or inside, Harrow Technical. (If he'd done a bad job I could have titled this post "A Harrowing Experience," but you can't have it both ways.)

Fancy camera fixing paraphernalia in Harrow's workshop. Is that a lens collimator? A shutter speed tester? I don't really know but I'd love to poke buttons and twist knobs here. Robin would probably frown on that, though I doubt he'd raise his voice. Anyway, I wasn't there -- Robin courteously, and with minimal prodding, provided the photos for this post (apart from the one I stole from Google below). 

Fancy camera fixing paraphernalia in Harrow's workshop. Is that a lens collimator? A shutter speed tester? I don't really know but I'd love to poke buttons and twist knobs here. Robin would probably frown on that, though I doubt he'd raise his voice. Anyway, I wasn't there -- Robin courteously, and with minimal prodding, provided the photos for this post (apart from the one I stole from Google below). 

Who is this Jesus to my metal Lazarus? Who chooses to labor, not in the rich, loamy fields of Leica Land, but in the stony talus of Pentax? I called him to find out.

I reached him at his office in Harrow, a suburb of London. He sounds much younger than he must be, and comes across as the kind of person who might stop to help a stranded motorist, even if that motorist wasn't particularly attractive or deserving looking. And if that motorist was your daughter or mother and you tracked down Robin and tried to explain to him how grateful you were that it was him that stopped that night, he would just smile affably and suggest that it was nothing, which is what anyone would say, but he would actually believe it, which is the thing. This may be a lot to infer from a twenty minute phone call about old cameras. I'm just trying to say, he sounds like a nice guy. 

Robin began working at Pentax only a couple of years after I was born, and I am no longer particularly young. He eventually became the technical service manager for Pentax in the UK, the title he held until the company cut its internal staff loose and farmed service out to a third party. In a twist, he stayed on, occupying the building of his former employer, which today is still proudly designated “Pentax House” in large white letters. Are the halls gray lino? Do they echo with the ghosts of film's glory days? I didn't ask, and Robin didn't volunteer. In any case, he’s been repairing Pentax cameras on his own for the last 22 years, a solitary light in a vast darkness.

Pentax House, as seen by Google Street View. If it was called House Pentax, I would have made a Game of Thrones reference. It would have been more clever than something about winter coming. This post is trying to write itself across multiple timelines, alternate realities.

Pentax House, as seen by Google Street View. If it was called House Pentax, I would have made a Game of Thrones reference. It would have been more clever than something about winter coming. This post is trying to write itself across multiple timelines, alternate realities.

So Robin, how's tricks?

“I’m very busy at the moment,” he said. “I find that a lot of people who’ve bought a Pentax digital camera have sold a film camera to fund the purchase, and now they’ve gone back and bought, second hand, the film model they sold.”

What about the “film renaissance” we’re always hearing about?

“I’m certainly a lot busier than I was a couple of years ago,” he said.

And who are these people that send him their treasures for resuscitation?

“A character just came in today with an MX that he’d bought new and looked like he’d used a lot. Or somebody will just drag something out of a cupboard. And a lot of stuff is inherited from deceased parents.”

An MX (not mine, possibly the character's) on Robin's work bench.

An MX (not mine, possibly the character's) on Robin's work bench.

But central to Robin’s business is, of course, the entity that is the cause of and solution to so many of the problems faced by people with an unhealthy interest in old cameras.

“I find a lot of people buy stuff on eBay, and it’s not always faulty, but it always need service.”

Still, he thinks it’s a good deal.

“You can buy an MX on eBay for 50 or 60 pounds, then you factor in [my] service cost, about 80 quid, so for 140 pounds you have a camera that’s going to last you indefinitely.”

What’s coming in?

“I get a lot of MXs, LXs, any sort of Spotmatic, the KX, K2, K1000 [which he called a K-thousand – have I been saying it wrong with the one all this time?]. That’s the bulk of what I get.”

I wanted him to dish some dirt on the Pentax family, who’s made of the sternest stuff, but like a loving father, he refused to play favorites, even though he obviously prefers the star footballer.

“They’re all reliable. I still get SVs, S1As, S3s, going back to the late 50s and early 60s. I get quite a few of those from overseas, and touch wood, I’ve not had one back yet.”

I was surprised to learn that Robin doesn’t shoot film himself (“I have a Panasonic bridge camera that I use, and that’s all I use.”) but in retrospect I suppose I shouldn’t have been. He’s a tradesman, not a hobbyist or a camera fetishist. This is his job. Outside of it, he’s probably a normal person.

Robin was bullish on film in general: “It’d definitely not a flash in the pan. It’s kept me busy for 20 years, and as I said I’m busier now.” But I wondered about the future of his profession. Is there anyone to pass the baton to?

“This is a question I’m asked quite often,” he said. “There are a lot of people my age in the trade, and eventually they’re all going to retire or die off. Who’s going to replace them? They’ve got a lot of knowledge, and there’s nobody else coming into the trade, so it’s a bit of a worry really. Eventually there may be no one left to repair this old stuff.”

This strikes me as particularly true for Pentax. The high value of Leica gear justifies high service fees, which seems to feed a fairly vibrant service ecosystem. Plus, Leica itself still exists as a maker and servicer (albeit at exorbitant cost) of Leica film gear. Nikon seems to have its own world of film-era specialists, and there’s a lot of Nikon gear floating around to support. But when it comes to people who just do Pentax, I’ve only come across Harrow and one other option. Robin has heard of him, too.

“There’s a guy in the States, Eric… Hendrickson, I think? He’s very good. Apart from him, I don’t know anyone else who specializes in Pentax anywhere.”

(And yet Eric offers us hope, in an interview conducted by one K David last year: “I’m training this gal on the K1000, and she’s really good, really talented.” Can I be forgiven for imagining emergent-Jedi Rey deftly removing the top plate, guided by an old master and her innate sense of the Force?)

A wider view of the work bench, since Robin took the trouble to photograph it. The same MX in déshabillé, fumbling hastily for its bottom plate. Looks like some Bonne Maman jam jars back there, probably full of specialty greases and oils. Let's hope Robin doesn't get his marmalade mixed up with his Nye 140C!   

A wider view of the work bench, since Robin took the trouble to photograph it. The same MX in déshabillé, fumbling hastily for its bottom plate. Looks like some Bonne Maman jam jars back there, probably full of specialty greases and oils. Let's hope Robin doesn't get his marmalade mixed up with his Nye 140C!   

I asked Robin for some maintenance do’s and don’ts.

“I wish people wouldn’t squirt WD-40 into their cameras,” he said. “You’ve be surprised how often that happens and it’s a real pain to deal with. Oh, and the foam where the mirror goes up, that’ll start to disintegrate and they’ll pick and pick at it, and it’ll get all over the focusing screen. It’s a bugger to clean off, or it’s impossible. And screens aren’t available… I have to harvest them from my stock of faulty cameras, which is time-consuming.” Consider yourself warned.

I also asked him about something that I’m kind of embarrassed to have worried about: Can he tell if a camera’s been sitting on a shelf for ages with the shutter cocked?

“Yes, you can tell. It doesn’t matter so much with the ME Super [which has a metal, vertical-travel shutter] and stuff, but on the cloth shutters, you’ll see that the material will have little ridges in it because it’s been wound over the drum for twenty years.” But wait. “That in itself isn’t detrimental, it just looks unsightly, but strangely enough it doesn’t affect the shutter speeds.” So there you have it. Relax, or don’t, depending on whether or not your obsessiveness extends to the appearance of your shutter curtains.