4:32pm PT by Chris Gardner
Inside Tom's One-Hour Photo in L.A.'s Koreatown 24 Hours After Kacey Musgraves Made Him a Viral Star
It's 12:13 p.m. on Thursday in Koreatown and there's an open parking meter directly in front of the entrance to Tom's 1-Hour Photo. It's always crowded on that stretch of Beverly Boulevard, and parking is never not an issue, so paying $1 for 60 minutes of prime curbside real estate feels like a steal.
There's nobody on the sidewalk and business is quiet on the block, also home to a Mexican restaurant, a pet food supply store and a computer repair shop that may or may not be permanently closed. Don't be fooled by the sleepy street nor the cracked and faded wooden signs that hang from the awning advertising "Tom's 1-Hr Foto," Tom Tuong is doing gangbusters business.
His wife, Lisa, has the day off from a full-time job doing nails at a nearby salon and she's come in to help out. She's got a cordless phone pressed against her cheek and a pen in hand as she negotiates the rest of the day's schedule, scribbling names and times on a piece of scratch paper. "How about you come in at 4 p.m.? OK?" she says to a future customer who has just landed a suddenly coveted slot in the shop's portrait studio.
That's where Tom is at the moment, hidden behind a black curtain open just enough to let the light of his camera's flash pop out every few seconds. He's juggling back-to-back appointments, and it's not been 24 hours since Kacey Musgraves introduced the world to his tiny Koreatown business, which, since 1991, has offered film developing, photo restoration, passport photos and glamour shots. His business has seen better days — no doubt the floors have, too — but nothing like this has ever happened.
As she recounted to her 1.6 million Instagram followers, Musgraves was in the city (for a series of sold-out shows on her Oh What a World Tour II) and needed to locate a one-hour photo shop. Her photographer sister found Tom and Musgraves went along for the ride. "It’s one of those rare mom-&-pop gems that has lasted thru trends coming and going and weirdly has come back around again without even realizing it. The owner, Tom, was SO adorable," she posted Wednesday night. "He sadly told us his business used to be really busy back in 1991 when he opened but has slowed way down since the digital wave."
Musgraves selected a series of Tom's handmade backdrops and posed for a dreamy and nostalgic photo shoot, eventually posting their collaborations on both Instagram and Twitter. He sells five poses for $25 and Musgraves paid him back by creating an appreciation account for him on Instagram called @tomsonehourphotolab that as of press time had already amassed 31,000 followers.
"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," the 31-year-old singer said in a statement shared with The Hollywood Reporter about why she helped his business. "The response and support for Tom’s One Hour Photo has been so beautiful and overwhelming. His family has reached out to say how happy they are to see their father’s hard work being recognized. I really hope we have had some kind of lasting positive effect on his business. 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."
Lisa said that her husband didn't know who Musgraves was when she came in, despite an explosive 2019 that saw the country music star cross over with an armful of Grammys (including album of the year for her critical smash Golden Hour), a sold-out tour and an appearance presenting at the Oscars. Tom and Lisa also weren't really aware of the media frenzy happening around them as they don't have Instagram. What they do know is that money is tight. Operating a brick-and-mortar location is tough for even corporate retail chains, but running a business focused solely on photography in the digital age is bleak.
"We pay rent but we don't have enough money to bring home, to accrue anything. I bring home the money I make doing nails but we don't have extra," Lisa tells The Hollywood Reporter. "That's why I come on my day off. We work hard but it's not easy to make money."
I saw @KaceyMusgraves post about #TomsOneHourPhoto so I went over there to talk to Tom. He was too busy (!) but I spoke to his wife, Lisa, and 3 customers who went because of Kacey. This is Alli with Tom, and Exotic Babi with her male pal. Business is booming! pic.twitter.com/QgEBv8wTCW
— Chris Gardner (@chrissgardner) August 29, 2019
It's cash only at Tom's 1-Hour Photo, and while The Hollywood Reporter was in the shop, Lisa accepted several handfuls for portrait sessions booked thanks to Musgraves. One came from a musician named Exotic Babi who has just come out from behind the curtain with a male friend. Tom, whose brow is covered in beads of sweat, has no time to talk but Exotic Babi does. "It's awesome that another artist is shouting them out like that," she says. "I'm an artist, too, and I'm super into that early 2000s look. When I heard about what they were doing, I thought, 'Dope, this will be cool.'"
When Exotic Babi was wrapped, Tom welcomed Musgraves fan Alli Standefer behind the curtain to pose against a backdrop of roses — her choice. "I'm pretty awkward in photo shoots but Tom was helpful," explained the Tennessee native, who cited "Lonely Weekend" as her favorite Musgraves track. "Kacey has such a positive influence not only on the genre of country music but pop music in general. And even with her overwhelming success, she still does what she can for smaller artists and small business owners. That's so cool."
It's been a hectic day for Tom and Lisa and they've not had any time to answer messages, let alone connect with their son, Nick, who got a shout out from Musgraves on Twitter where she posted his DM. "I have listened to your music for so long and it makes me so happy that you graced us, I love you and thank you so much again!! Our family business has been slow since advancements in technology have put one hour photo and retro studio photography on a downward path," wrote Nick.
Lisa wasn't aware he'd sent a message so she asked The Hollywood Reporter to read it aloud. Once she heard what he said, her face lit up with a wide smile. "He's an engineer — he's very smart," she noted, before turning her attention back to Musgraves. She wanted to get her own message of gratitude out. "Like my son said, thank you [Kacey] for helping the family so people can know us and help us continue our business."
We were just in LA and needed to find a One Hour Photo place quick. Sandwiched between little bodegas, my sister randomly found this place on Beverly Blvd in Korea Town called Tom’s One Hour Photo & Lab. It’s one of those rare mom-&-pop gems that has lasted thru trends coming and going and weirdly has come back around again without even realizing it. The owner, Tom, was SO adorable. He not only does film developing but (cheap) and nostalgic portrait sessions too. (He gave us digital files and we edited these but he’ll shoot on film if you ask him to.) Pick your favorite background! He made them all himself.