Here’s a story down memory lane, triggered by a camera acquisition. The Fuji Discovery 875 Zoom Plus is pretty forgotten today, but it relates to a moment in my former life.
It’s hard to fathom now, but there was a time where Kmart was ubiquitous. No matter what part of the United States you went to, there’d be a Kmart somewhere. Founded in 1962, the chain popularized the concept of the discount department store–a well-rounded set of self service departments from clothing to garden supplies to housewares and so on, and everything priced lower than you’d find in a regular department store or mom and pop shop. At its peak Kmart had 2,400 stores. Now? Last I checked, the once mighty retailer (second behind Sears for much of the latter part of the 20th Century) is barely hanging on, having just 17–seventeen!–stores left. What was once part of the cultural fabric of America is barely a shell of its former self.
During the good times, Kmart was a powerhouse in camera retailing. The Camera Department was a full service affair, selling Instamatics to SLRs plus photo-finishing. You wouldn’t find “pro” gear, but that wasn’t Kmart’s demographic. Popular cameras would be sold for much less than one could find at a standalone camera shop due to the sales volume a chain like Kmart could achieve. Kmart also had their own in-house brand, Focal, which included film (made by Ansco/GAF or 3M/Ferrania), lenses, and even some rebadged cameras made by Cosina, Haking, Ricoh, and Petri. It wasn’t just Kmart branded cameras: the discounter had an agreement with Minolta in the 1970s, and the Japanese company provided them with two exclusive cameras: the Minolta SR-T MC, an SLR that fell between the SR-T 100 and 101, and the Minolta Hi-Matic ES, a fixed-lens rangefinder that was a stripped-down version of the Hi-Matic E.
I worked for Kmart for about five years in the middle of the 90s. Kmart had just peaked and would quickly be outpaced by Wal-Mart (who offered lower prices) and Target (who offered more “class”). But we didn’t feel that yet, especially since neither retailer had made inroads into Connecticut, where I was living at the time. Back then, our competition was instead from regional Northeast/New England chains like Ames, Bradlees, or Caldor, retailers that are now only memories. During those five years I worked my way up until I became Electronics/Cameras Manager. In 1997 the days of buying an SLR at Kmart were long gone, and the Focal brand had mostly disappeared. By that point, compact point-and-shoot cameras were our bread and butter.
One thing that flummoxed me back then was that we’d continuously be low on popular, name-brand cameras by Nikon, Canon, Minolta, or Pentax, yet instead we’d get another shipment of Fuji Discovery cameras. Our customers really didn’t think about Fuji for anything other than film. So those Fuji Discoveries would inevitably end up taking up space in the stockroom. And I couldn’t figure out why this was the situation. Well, it turns out that Kmart had a deal with Fuji, so our stock would be weighted towards that instead of other name brands. But even with good prices, the Fuji Discovery line of cameras just didn’t do the business that the higher-ups at corporate hoped.
And now, almost twenty-five years since I parted with The Savings Place one of those cursed Fuji Discovery cameras has crossed my hands. Oh the irony: a camera that I didn’t want anything to do with then has become yet another acquisition. It’s not like I was looking for a Fuji Discovery, I was just looking for a cheap point-and-shoot for a project. People didn’t seem to want those cameras then, and even less so now.
The one I found was a Fuji Discovery 875 Zoom Plus. You won’t find much on the internet about this model, for good reason: The 875 was only sold at Kmart. It’s the same thing as the Fuji Discovery 900 Zoom Date Plus but under a different name. Why? Well, independent camera shops had long groused about the ability of Kmart and other mass merchandisers to undersell them. With a slightly different model name Fuji could claim that Kmart is getting a different camera than the one they provided the mom-and-pop shops, thereby diffusing the situation. Ah, capitalism!
The Fuji Discovery 875 Zoom Plus is a fairly typical circa 1991 compact superzoom: A zoom from 38mm to 85mm, autofocus and auto-exposure, autofocus lock, landscape/infinity mode, and various flash settings. all wrapped up in a brick-like package. There are a few things that do make the Fuji Discovery unique: a readout of the lens’s focal length on the LCD screen, Fuji’s proprietary fool-proof drop-in film loading, and the choice of three different HG flash setting cards (macro flash, night preflash and auto daylight) that slide into a slot that one could mistake for a hot shoe. (The HG cards are conveniently located in the camera strap, so no worries about losing them.)
The Fuji Discovery 875 Zoom Plus uses the not-so-common (and not-so-cheap) CR-P2 6-volt lithium battery. Since I had only a stock of more common CR2 and CR123A cells, I had to wait until I headed to Blue Moon Camera to pick up film and other sundries before I could grab a battery to test it. And doing so meant I found myself in the far-flung St Johns neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. So I decided that rather than shoot the familiar environs of my neighborhood, I’d head somewhere different: Sauvie Island, a riverine island where the Willamette and Columbia Rivers meet. Only about a mile from Portland’s city limit, Sauvie Island is rural in character, a collection of homes, farms, and nature preserves. It’s a great little getaway from the city, yet it’s far enough (especially by bike) that I don’t do it often enough. Since I was in a car popping up there would be fairly easy.
I had fun shooting on Sauvie Island. It was early October and fall was starting to present itself. Yet while the car made it easy to get to the island, I wish I was on bike or foot instead, because it’s easy to just stop and take a photo when you want. There were a few nice scenes I passed and had to make the call on whether to double-back and figure out where to park–I couldn’t just stop in the middle of Sauvie Island’s narrow and shoulderless roads. As for the shooting itself I primarily used the Fuji Discovery 875 Zoom Plus in “auto” mode at its widest focal length, just letting the camera do the thinking. No, I never got around to trying the flash cards.
I waited in anticipation to see the results. Would a camera that I was predisposed to hate because of my personal history turn out to be capable machine and validate its existence? No. The majority of photos were out-of-focus. And It wasn’t like I was trying to challenge the auto-focus system or anything, pretty much everything I shot was landscapes. I even used the “infinity/landscape” button most of the time, and that obviously didn’t mean anything. A few of the shots are “interesting” in an Impressionistic sort of way, everything else just fuzzy. Weirdly, most of the “in-focus” shots were when I was using the zoom.
Even though the camera itself was a dud, it was good having the Fuji Discovery 875 Zoom Date for a hot second because it made me think about my past. My tenure at Kmart was a little too long, as I was young and didn’t know what else to do. But it made me realize that I didn’t want to work in retail for the rest of my life, and I got out before I did something silly like become an assistant store manager. Having a crappy job like that when I was barely drinking age made me pursue other, better avenues, and I’m happy for that.
And now Kmart is a store way past its prime. It wouldn’t surprise me if within the next year Kmart will finally go belly-up and shutter the rest of its stores. But there was a time when everyone went to Kmart for pretty much everything, and it was a great place to buy cameras and stock up on film. I raise a glass to that memory.