I Come to Bury Radio Shack…and to Praise It.

Last night I read a eulogy for Radio Shack, the electronics dealer that has been around since before I can remember (and that’s a long time).  The eulogy was mostly concerned with Radio Shack from an employee’s perspective, and mostly with the last fifteen years.

I have rarely been in a Radio Shack in the past 15 years; but there was a time when it was the go-to source for electronic parts.

Set the wayback machine.  It’s 1971, I’m 13 and in junior high school.  My best friend B and I had certainly discovered girls and the notion of sex, but we were too absolutely petrified (and would be for some years to come) to do anything about it.

So we became ham radio operators.

Well, it’s a little complicated.  I forget exactly how B and I met, but it was before we (I, at any rate) had any notion of ham radio.  I had always been a science fiction/rocket geek, as far back as I can remember (and as I said above, that’s a long time) and had met B and at some point realized that he was a fellow geek.  It may have been in a shop class.  Anyway.  I recruited him to the ranks of model rocketry.  We’d build and fly all sorts of birds.  Weirdly, B was more into building than into flying (which I should have known meant that he was destined, as he was, to grow up to be an engineer).

In return, B recruited me into the ranks of a ham radio club.  We learned electronics from Mr. S,  one of my favorite teachers of all time.  He taught us theory, and the band teacher, Mr. E, who held an FCC amateur license, helped us learn Morse code and administered the FCC Novice Class exam to us (the exam required an elementary knowledge of FCC regulations, electrical theory, and the ability to receive Morse at 25 characters per minute [5 “words” per minute–5 WPM]).  By the late summer of ’71, I had my license–I was radio station WN0IKW.  My first ham radio receiver was a Radio Shack DX-150A.

Over the next year and half or so, I earned a General Class and then Advanced Class license (more advanced theory and the ability to read code at 13 WPM), and my call sign lost the Novice “N” and became WB0IKW.

But during that phase, B and I headed down (whenever our parents would drive us) to the Allied Radio Shack store (a sort of Radio Shack Superstore) in St. Paul.  They had shortwave receivers, microphones, antennae, rotators, all kinds of cool stuff.  And they had blister packs that contained things like “50 Assorted Electrolytic Capacitors” or “100 Silicon and Germanium Diodes” for something like $1 each.

B and I would buy packages of this stuff and build simple circuits to teach ourselves about electronics and construction.  When we got fancier, Radio Shack sold us aluminum and plastic (usually Bakelite) boxes in which to build our projects.  One time I made my younger brother a black box that did nothing, but had three jeweled indicator lights on top (red, amber, and green) and three toggle switches.  Fun to play with.  I built my first digital clock from Radio Shack parts.

Later, B and I would graduate to other places–ACME Electronics (mainly surplus electronics) in Minneapolis, Electronic Center, Inc. (the retail purveyor of ham radio equipment in the area), just around the corner from ACME, and Ax Man Surplus (which had an iron lung in its front window and a WWII-era torpedo inside), Gopher Electronics near the University of Minnesota–but Radio Shack was always there.

I continued to build small electrical and electronic devices, and Radio Shack was there.  The bins of parts got smaller as the number of phones, cordless phones, and later, cell phones, increased.  But it was always there.

When I was in high school and college, having somewhat overcome my shyness and ditched ham radio for explorations of other sorts, I built electronics for sound.  Mixers, preamps, on-board guitar electronics.  Often, some of the parts (if no more than knobs) came from Radio Shack.  I had a phone in my room, Swedish, I think, that I bought surplus at Radio Shack and modified.

I went to graduate school in Chicago, and there was a Radio Shack in my neighborhood.  When I needed parts to build a power switching station for my new computer in 1984 (I was too cheap or too poor, I forget which, to invest $100 in such a beast, having drained my resources for the Kaypro) all of the parts came from my friendly neighborhood Radio Shack:  case, wiring, switches, indicator lights.  All of it.

There was a Radio Shack in Schenectady, New York when I lived there.  There was one in La Crosse, Wisconsin.  The parts bins kepts getting smaller, but they were still there.  When I needed to get a potted bridge rectifier to build an LED bike light, I got it at Radio Shack.  When  we moved to Greater New Haven so I could go to law school (remember law school?  This blog’s about law school), Radio Shack was there.

Things had changed over time, of course.  The parts were almost all gone, and the cognoscenti enjoyed turning Radio Shack’s motto (“You have questions, we have answers”) on its head (“You have stupid questions, we have stupid answers”).  I was in a Radio Shack a couple of weeks ago to pick up some small parts, but the size of the bins had been cut in half yet again, and the only thing I could find I needed was some heat-shrinkable tubing.

Radio Shack was a wonderful place, and it has tried to adapt, but it lost its soul long ago.  It was a place for the do-it-yourselfer, and the DIY today is nearly as dead as a doornail–thanks in part, I think, to Radio Shack’s movement into retail consumer products.  It was the last holdout for geeks, but it didn’t want to sell to geeks, it wanted to sell to people who would spend too much for too little and, in that regard,  Radio Shack could never compete with cell phone carriers, or stereo stores. (Consider:  you have a choice between two receivers, one labeled ‘Sony’ and one house-branded ‘Realistic.’  Which would you choose?)

Radio Shack is done, has been done for some time, and IMO you can stick a fork in it.  It may stick around for a few years, or it may be gone within the month.  It’s done.

But it was great while it lasted.

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2 Responses to I Come to Bury Radio Shack…and to Praise It.

  1. Doug Johnson says:

    Good Radio Shack blog! Five+ years ago, I predicted Radio Shack would be out of business by now. Well, now they are about as close to being extinct as a business can get. I also went there to buy various electronic parts often as a young lad. Kids don’t do that any longer. Remember what a big deal it was when the new RS catalog came out? I loved paging through and dreaming. They whole thing is pretty sad but times have changed.

  2. I wrote this post a little over two months ago.

    Today, my Local Radio Shack has a sign on the window: Last 4 Days. Everything is 90-95% off. I bought a USB cable I needed, and a 12v transformer I didn’t. Total cost: $1.99, tax included. I’m going to keep that transformer in its packaging as a kind of memorial to something gone.

    Boy, it was sad in there.

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