The Lost Tribes of RadioShack: Tinkerers Search for New Spiritual Home

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The Lost Tribes of RadioShack: Tinkerers Search for New Spiritual Home – WIRED Magazine

Andy Cohen waves his arm at the electrical miscellany hanging around him, showing off his tubular lugs and a box labeled “81-piece terminal assortment”. Cohen is holding court at the back of the RadioShack store he owns in Sebastopol, California. To his left, a tattooed kid fishes through a metal chest of drawers labeled “fast-acting/slow-blow 3ag-type”. Another cabinet is labeled “capacitors: electrolytic, radial (pcb-mount) leads, axial (in-line) leads”. Behind him, a spinning rack is hung with baggies containing dozens of different brass and gold solderless connectors. They’re the little widgets you think of when you think of RadioShack — the sort of electronic parts the company once had a near monopoly on but that are increasingly hard to find there. Cohen gets much of his supply direct from China. “Where are you going to find all these different kinds of solder? A selection of five soldering irons? All these connectors?” Cohen says. “Other RadioShacks, they hide this stuff or don’t buy enough of it anymore. We go out of our way to show you these things.”

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  1. For the longest time, we had a Radio Shack Affiliate store here. They couldn’t put the official Radio Shack sign out front, just some Radio Shack approved product dealer sign in the window. Unfortunately, the man who owned it got ill and had to retire. He stocked it from overstocks in the other stores in the southern part of our state, retaining parts availability long after they got discontinued from the official parts lineup and proceeded to find his own suppliers for stuff that was popular. Amazingly, he was able to sell all he could get his hands on and people came from far and wide to get components.

    With the passing of user repairable consumer electronics and the basic knowledge to do so, stores like these were doomed until the current time where there is a resurgence of people who want not to repair, but to create their own electronic devices. Places like Radio Shack, Allied Electronics, Lafayette all tended to drive the experimenter market with freely available information and cheer-leading, but slowly gave it all up to service the consumer electronics market.

    After a few mergers and closures, we are left with “The Shack”, a not very good name, considering what this was a euphemism for locally in my grandparents generation and remembered in my parents generation (rural electrification came late here).

  2. Dude, you need to get onto – them teaming up with companies like Ada could lead to a whole new generation of tinkering and fixing.

  3. You know, I read through that whole article, and there’s not a single mention of where that guy on the left got his shiny shirt. Very disappointing.

  4. Tandy is/was Radio Shack in Australia. Even the layout in Tandy from what i’ve seen of Radio Shack U.S. shops seems to be the same. The products were either labelled Radio Shack or Realistic.

    As a kid there was one within walking distance and even if i had no money i’d browse the component shelves wondering what things did, planning my next purchase when i had next accrued enough pocket money and stealing circuit ideas from books that i ended up buying years later.

    Fast forward to me part timing at Tandy in High School. It was longer the component cornucopia of my younger years. The component range had drastically reduced being replaced by toys, P.C.s and mobile phones. I didn’t enjoy it and wasn’t there for long.

    I remember one kid that came in from time to time asking how he might do this or that and i would draw schematics for him only to realise the components were not available from Tandy (but probably once were). I’d then have to direct him to Jaycar.

    Indidentally Jaycar is ever expanding and Tandy is now either nonexistent, scarce or irrelevant to hobbyists anyway.

    Dick Smith Electronics who also started out long ago as a electronics hobbyist store in Australia have pretty much dumped all their electronics component range and associated geekery and are now doing very well in the music and consumer electronics space.

    I too salute those who have firmly stood against the tide.
    For vendors who have been unable to, its difficult to fault them. It’s a niche market. Having a big range means a vendor has a lot of cash locked up in stock on the shelves. The lure of stocking widely popular, high markup consumer electronics must be distracting even for a store owner for whom hobbyist electronics has a more than average meaning.

    If you’re trying to attract many(all?) demographics i think it’s difficult to get them all to care about your brand to the same extent. I think there is something to be said in catering to a smaller audience who give your brand a greater care factor than the “anybody&anything” brand.

  5. As a child, Radio Shack, their xxx-in-one electronics kits, and their parts assortments were highly instrumental in introducing me to my lifelong interest in electronics, robotics, and computers. My first scanners and ham radio gear came from the local Radio Shack store. It always seemed to me to be a wonderful place where you could just go and buy any bits and pieces that you wanted, in order to build anything in the world – you just had to figure out how to make it all work.

    Unfortunately, Radio Shack had already begun its long, depressing slide towards becoming "cellphone-and-toy-car shack" by the time I went to work there. Our store manager actually took pride in the fact that he had no idea what any of the "pennies per part" components in the back of the store did, since they brought down your all-important dollar-per-ticket statistic that determined how well you got paid. When I was told in so many words – by the regional manager no less! – to lie to the customers about what the products would do if it would help to make a sale, I decided that it was time to find another job. I had lasted about half a year before figuring out that Radio Shack no longer gave a damn.

    By now, they have completely washed their hands of the hobbyists who brought them so far. They no longer carry any ham gear – it was never very fancy, but it was always pretty functional, affordable, and more-or-less bulletproof (my 15-year-old HTX-212 still churns out the signals). Their attempts at selling computers came and went several times, never recapturing the wave that they rode so well in the early 1980s. The racks and racks of components have been dwindled to a half-full cabinet of fuses, switches, and plugs which more often than not are completely unsorted and just tossed into whatever drawer happens to be handy when the restock comes in. About the only thing in any of the stores that is ever maintained is the display of cellphones and phone accessories – everything else is just incidental to their new image as "The Shack", where "we sell cellphones….and some other stuff".

    I still enjoy electronics, and I still like building my own stuff, talking on the radio, and taking projects from back-of-an-envelope sketches through to completion. Unfortunately, there isn’t anywhere to go around here for that "one last component" – Radio Shack, non-repairable electronics, and a generalized lack of creativity and curiosity have driven the small-time electronics shops out of most markets. For many of us these days, it’s mail-order or nothing at all, and waiting a week for that "one last component" to be delivered has become the norm (along with hefty shipping charges, having to bulk up shopping carts to make the ‘minimum order’, etc.).

    It seems that the recent spate of hackerspaces, DIY publications, and home fabrication technologies is at least helping to reverse this trend, though they haven’t really made it out to the less urbanized areas yet. It’s nice to know that there are still little one-off shops out there who cater to the now-rare electronics tinkerer, and where people can get together to collaborate, swap stories, share ideas, and just generally shoot the bull about their latest projects. I just wish that there were more of them around; it gets lonely out here.

  6. Excellent read! I was hoping to visit this store the next time I’m in the area, but it’s a little bit of a drive from where I’ll be. Still, Oreilly Media has a nice easter egg on Google Maps from Foo Camp:

  7. Everything said about the “Shack” is so true. My electronics experience starts a few decades ago when “Radio Row” existed in NY (where the WTC was built). Many young people got their start in electronics by buying surplus electronics cheaply and experimenting. Funny…I recently went to a Radio Shack to look for a part and the salesperson was shocked that someone needed such a thing…the salesperson said “nobody messes with parts these days”….my reply was “really”?….

  8. Does anyone know where I can find local distributors. Obviously I can buy most of the stuff I want online but sometimes I would like to buy it now and just don’t have the time or can’t wait.

    Maybe a better question is, “Is there a site where I can look for a local distributor of a given item”? If not I’d definitely be willing to start one.

  9. I too had written off RS when I discovered the benefits of their web site. I live in a metro area of around 1M. Search for part on their web site, i.e. solder sucker. The site lists which stores in the area have it, and how far away it is. So far, it hasn’t been wrong for me. I recently discovered their proto boards, and found they are decent. RS is still nothing like it was in its heyday, but it’s great not having to go from store to store to find a bag of capacitors with the one value you must have today.

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