Radio Shack, We Knew Thee Well

I’m dating myself here, but the first time I entered a Radio Shack was in 1972. I had just finished reading The Radio Amateur’s Handbook and was absolutely fascinated by the whole thought of working with electronics. The combination of reading science fiction and electronics books of various sorts, convinced me to go to a technical high school. I graduated with all the necessary knowledge to become an apprentice electrician. However, entering the Navy moved me into computers, where I remain today. (I started out as a hardware guy and moved into programming later.) Radio Shack was filled with all sorts of cool looking gizmos. It was akin to entering my science fiction books and experiencing what “could be” first hand. The day I finished designing and building my first power supply and amplifier was an absolute thrill. I still have the plans for it somewhere. The mono output of 20 watts seemed fantastic. I’m not the only one with fond memories—authors such as PC Magazine’s Jamie Lendino and John Dvorak have them as well.

Over the years I watched Radio Shack change from this absolutely fascinating place I had to visit every time I passed it to something less. Eventually, it became just a common store—the aisles filled with televisions, radios, and consumer gizmos of all sorts. It got to the point where I could buy the same type of goods just about anywhere for a much lower price. For me, the death spiral was just sad to watch. As a country, we really need stores that encourage people to invent—to think outside the box. Unfortunately, Radio Shack is no longer that store. I visited a Radio Shack in a mall the other day and there were only a few items left for sale at high discount. I helped a friend buy a mouse. It was an odd feeling to leave the store one last time knowing that I’d never see the store I knew and loved in the 70s and 80s again.

Even the salespeople changed over time. During the early 70s when I first started going to Radio Shack, I could hear salespeople talking the talk with any customer that came in. One of them even convinced me to use a different transistor for my amplifier and to rely on a full bridge rectifier to make the output cleaner. If these terms seem foreign, they do, in fact, belong to a different time. The surge of creativity I experienced during that phase in my life is gone—replaced by something totally different today. The young lad I talked with the other day was a salesperson and just barely knew his trade. Gone are the salespeople who really made Radio Shack special.

I yearn for the resurgence of creativity and of stores that promote it. This is one case where brick and mortar stores have a definite advantage over their online cousins. When you go into a brick and mortar store, you can talk with real people, see real demonstrations, touch real hardware, and get that special ethereal feeling of entering the zone of the tinkerer and the definer of dreams. Radio Shack, we knew thee well, and we really need something like you back.