Once a common sight in parking lots across America, these blue and yellow shacks seemed magical to a kid. Drive up, drop off your film, and return tomorrow to see your pictures in all their glossy glory. Sounds archaic by today’s standards, but back in the 70s, a trip to Fotomat was something pretty special.
A San Diego man named Preston Fleet opened his first Fotomat in 1965, a small blue shack with a bright yellow mansard roof and a drive-thru window. These building were only big enough to hold a selection of film, a cash register, and one pretty cramped employee.
By the time the 70s rolled around, hundreds of these little buildings were starting to appear in suburban neighborhoods around the country, and by the end of the decade, more than 4,000 Fotomat stores dotted the American landscape.
A kid today, one who can view, print or edit a picture seconds after taking it, wouldn’t understand the excited anticipation of a return visit to Fotomat. You sat in line behind a row of cars also waiting for their little envelope of photo memories and pondered a few things while you waited.
How exactly did they develop the film in that little shack, and more importantly, where was the bathroom? Those mysteries were left unsolved, but it mattered little once you had that prized package of photos in your hand after a day’s wait that sometimes seemed like a week.
Besides developing (and selling a lot of Kodak film), Fotomat also became one of the first places to offer video rentals. For the steep fee of $12 (in 1970s money, no less), you could browse through a catalog, then call a phone number and order a movie of your choice. The next day, you could pick up the video cassette and enjoy it for a full five days before returning it to your local Fotomat.
Unfortunately, by the beginning of the 80s, technology was about to deal Fotomat a death blow. The advent of inexpensive one-hour photo development made those 24 hours seem like an awfully long time.
Furthermore, mom and pop video rental stores began appearing on practically every corner, offered much more reasonable rental fees with no catalogs or wait periods. Of course, within another 20 years, we would all but eliminate film development from our vocabulary.
And yet, every once in a while you still see a dilapidated old shack sitting in the center of a parking lot, remnants of what was once a thriving business, one that put smiles on millions of faces and helped them relive all those special moments in life. The Fotomats of the world may be gone, but they certainly aren’t forgotten.
Do you remember going to Fotomat as a kid? Better yet, did you or anyone you knew ever work at one? I’d love to hear your recollections in the comments section below.