I poked my head into a camera repair shop in Ho Chi Minh City while en route to sell my Olympus Pen F Digital at a different store. The Olympus was a fine camera, one of the best that I’ve ever owned, but I was finding digital to be too cold of a medium for me, and I worried about Olympus’s future. They’d just announced that they’d canceled production on the Pen F a few weeks earlier, just after they’d announced a high-end camera aimed at nature and sports photographers. Why cancel a camera aimed at street photographers, a field of photography that's currently wildly popular, and release one aimed at a niche market like high-end nature shooters? It didn't make sense to me and I worried that Olympus had lost their vision.
The repair shop, as expected, had cameras littered about on various tables, some fully assembled and others in pieces, their electronic circuitry exposed for all to see. The shop was tiny, and there were no other customers there but me. This store was on a busy street and I wondered how the owner could afford to be there. Other stores nearby sold used cameras, so perhaps they sent him business.
He also sold a few used cameras. A glass case at the rear of the shop displayed his wares. A silver-bodied Leicaflex 35mm grabbed my attention, though it didn't have a lens. And, in the lower corner farthest away from me, a Bronica S2A! I'd never seen one in real life and certainly didn't expect to find one for sale in Saigon. In fact, I didn't expect to find any used film cameras for sale in Saigon besides 35mm. The Bronica was one of two medium format SLR cameras that I've been wanting to hold. The other was the Kowa Super 66.
The store owner and I examined the camera together, and he was clearly pleased that I recognized its value. Since it was positioned so obliquely that I almost didn't see it, he likely had placed it in the corner due to lack of interest from previous shoppers. After all, who buys film cameras, especially ones that shoot 120 film? Looking at it carefully I could see that this Bronica was clearly for a shooter, not a collector. The stainless steel (yes, stainless steel) was lightly scratched and a small piece of the leatherette was pulled up in the corner. The leatherette on the waist-level finder had shrunken and some glue was exposed. And the mirror showed signs of where fungus had once been.
Besides age, these Bronicas suffer from other problems, mainly issues with film advance. The internals of this camera iis complicated, and from what I've read the gearing is extensive. My experience confirms this since advancing the film requires rotating the advance knob many more times than on my Mamiya C220. Earlier models, such as the Bronica S and S2 had softer gears which were prone to stripping, while the S2A had harder hears, and a clutch system that keeps over-exuberant users from breaking the camera.
One of the first things I did after buying the camera was to put a roll of film through it and have it developed by the one lab that I've found in Saigon that processes film. The shots came out perfect.
The price of the camera fit in my budget, and I told the owner that I would be back after selling my Olympus. I was offered a better price for my Pen F than expected, not as much as I paid, but nearly double what an online store in America had offered me, and I returned to purchase the Bronica.
The owner was in the back of his shop, and perhaps he had decided that I wouldn't return. I paid him and loaded the camera into my camera bag. Then we visited for a few more minutes. His English was good, and my Vietnamese is non-existent, but we still managed to communicate. He lamented over one of the cameras on his bench, the top piece pulled off exposing its electronic parts. There's nothing you can do, he said. You can't repair them. I believe him. I've found that the Vietnamese can repair almost anything. Their ingenuity is astounding, but even they have their limits, and that camera seemed to be one of them.
I bid the shop keeper goodnight and returned to my hotel. Who would have imagined that I’d find this camera under such circumstances?