Wednesday, March 31, 2010

RadioShack - Past, Present, and Future..?

Recent news reports that Best Buy may acquire RadioShack have been causing me to reflect on the role "The Shack" played in my childhood, my interest in technology and radio, and how much they've changed in 40 years.

I sometimes like to joke that RadioShack was my first consulting client, but there's an element of truth to that. In 4th grade every day after school I would walk over to my local RadioShack (on the corner of W Chapman Ave and Haster St in Anaheim) to spend an hour or more looking at their CB radios and other things I couldn't begin to afford. The store manager finally got tired of wiping my fingerprints off his display cases and offered me a job delivering catalogs to the local neighborhood; paying me in store credit. After a strenuous week and a couple of spills on my bicycle (the catalogs were a lot heavier than the newspapers I was used to delivering) I was able to afford a real walkie-talkie; not one of those 100 mW Channel 14 toys I'd received for Christmas the year before but a REAL radio with channels and meaningful output power. I didn't stop hanging around the RadioShack (because there were always more catalogs to deliver) but I felt like I was part of the store family.

Within a couple of years I'd moved away to New Jersey to live with my father and there wasn't a RadioShack close by, but the school I attended had a fairly good electronics club and a computer lab with punch-card programmable calculators and (of all things) a DEC PDP-8. By the time I returned to California in 1979 I'd become fairly proficient at programming, and there was a RadioShack at the mall on my way home from school selling the newly-released TRS-80 Model II. I would sit there every day, read the BASIC language manual, and try to modify the looping demo program so it would display my name, personalized messages, etc. The manager got annoyed one day when a friend of mine decided it would be funny to write something R-rated, and I was not welcome in the store for a while. Then one day I saw him looking around the mall, turns out he was looking for me. He said that he wanted to customize the TRS-80/II's demo program to promote some store sales, and wanted me to do that for him. He offered to pay me in (of course) store credit. My second consulting gig for The Shack lasted only a short time, but for the second time in my life I was part of a store family.

The rapid changes in technology which came in the years following had a dramatic effect on RadioShack. In 1985/86 despite a store being closer to our Coast Guard base I was driving an additional 30 minutes one-way to places like Electronics Plus in San Rafael to buy parts for custom designed circuits. This continued once I was back in civilian life; most of my time was spent in places like Quement, HSC/Halted, Santa Cruz Electronics, etc. It felt in a way like I was betraying my RadioShack "family" but as the complexity of my designs increased I simply could not buy what I needed from them.

Over the years I've remained hopeful that RadioShack will return to its roots and focus on the hobbyist/experimenter. A while back they updated their selection of components with the bin drawers, and I was very happy back in 2008 to see that they were actively supporting the San Mateo Maker Faire by both selling tickets and exhibiting product at the event. I had visions of being able to buy Arduino shields in a store and browse bins full of interesting I2C chips, but that never happened. It's ironic because you'd think RadioShack would be perfect to become the storefront for the Arduino/Maker circuit hacking movement, but its online stores like Adafruit and SparkFun that dominate. Even the "old school" electronic stores like Anchor Electronics are starting to carry circuit hacking accessories like connector breakout boards.

Yesterday I went to my local RadioShack looking for a solderless breadboard. I'd checked their website and it said that this particular store had some in stock, but the kid working there told me that they hadn't stocked such things in a couple of years. Frustrating, and also sad.

It will be a sad day if and when RadioShack is snarfed up by Best Buy. All things must change, I suppose. I could say that I'll miss my RadioShack "family" but the reality is that they've been gone for a long time now. Like the parent of a missing child I long for their return, or at least the knock of a policeman at my door who brings news so I can begin mourning and find closure.

4 comments:

J. Peterson said...

but the kid working there told me that they hadn't stocked such things in a couple of years

You should have looked on the shelf anyway. I went to RS a few weeks ago looking for an intercom. Clerk: "Oh, we've never carried anything like that." I found it on the shelf right out in plain view.

Radio Shack: You've got questions, we've got blank stares.

Sparqi said...

@J - Yeah, been there done that. I bought some NiMH batteries there a while back for a project. Kid/Clerk tried to up-sell me on a charger. I explained that would not be necessary because the project I was building has a built-in charger controller, and the NiMH cells were just for backup power. He thought for a second and asked "You built a charger? Wouldn't it be easier to just buy one?" Sigh...

richms said...

Same thing happened here in New Zealand with Dick Smith electronics - now they just sell laptops, external harddrives, LCD tvs, DVD players and mobile phones pretty much.

Jaycar came along from aussie, but recently they have culled there interesting products and mainly sell junk like farting salt shakers and crappy disco lights.

Paul said...

A Realistic DX-160 is what turned me on to ham radio. Look at their catalog from that time and compare to the empty shell of an electronics store that RS is today...

http://www.radioshackcatalogs.com/catalogs/1976/

Had to see what they were selling when I was born. I wish I hadn't looked...

http://www.radioshackcatalogs.com/catalogs/1963/

(Hint: the good stuff starts around page 156)

73 de ww2pt