digital lifestyle / great companies doing silly things

Radio Shack Goes Bankrupt

Radio Shack is going bankrupt, and the Internet has erupted in waves of nostalgia and false nostalgia. Why not? It’s my turn.

As the orphan son of an Engineer, I had an early love of electronics. I made circuits the hard way at first, with a soldering iron, loose wires and a brown breadboard. My old soldering iron was more suitable for automobile fenders, so I bought a shiny new “electronics” soldering iron at Radio Shack. The pointy tip was heavily chromed, and no matter how I fluxed or wiped, solder ran away from it like it was made of a magical lead/tin anti-magnet. Eventually I saved my allowance, begged a ride across town to the real electronics store, and bought a Weller.

I talked my Mom into getting me an experimenter’s kit, the big 100-in-1. It came in a dark stained but otherwise unfinished wooden tray, and there were so many components on the waxed cardboard it sagged down to the wood in the middle! It featured an Integrated Circuit! But the IC wasn’t exactly a DIP or any other IC I had ever seen. It was a slab of white stuff over an inch square, with a transistor and a few other components glued on top. I eagerly set about doing experiments, but not all of them worked out. The ones that did work, didn’t work well. Finally I broke out my Dad’s big old VOM and measured the resistors. Their resistance bore only a passing resemblance to their encoded values. I experimented with the capacitors and learned that some were just opens, some shorts, and the rest wildly out of spec.

I took the cardboard out of the box and tried to replace some of the worst components with good ones, but it fell apart under its own weight. Most of the springs, only a few months old, were sprung and unable to hold a wire. Soon I just gave up and used the wood box as a tray to hold real components. The solderless breadboard arrived on the scene , and gave me the ability to use real DIP IC’s easily and portably. I moved my entire digital experimentation setup into an electric shaver box and left the wooden tray at home for storage. My curiousity was insatiable, and I bought more and more experiment books from the real electronics store across town.

The local Radio Shack was only a bicycle ride away, so armed with component lists from the experiment handbooks, I rode off to electronics nirvana and a free battery… only to find only a fraction of the components in stock. I handed a list to the manager for re-order, and he handed it right back to me. “If I could get rid of all that junk” he said, waving a hand at the electronics components, “I would, and replace it with Stereos”. Well, he did just that, I stopped by the store a few years later and there wasn’t a component to be seen.

I mentioned that to my older Brother. He replied, “Radio Shack sells imported stereos for almost as much as the real brands, on credit. He can make a lot more money off of one stereo sale.”

As I got older, I took more of an interest in music. I bought a Realistic AM/FM tabletop radio from Radio Shack. It worked OK for a few months. After that, whatever I tuned in, on any band, I could hear one particular FM radio station in the background. I did not live near their broadcast antenna. That was the end of being a Radio Shack customer for me.

A couple years later that strip mall location went out of business, and a couple years after that another sprung up at the new, big Mall. It was barely within bicycle range, but it didn’t matter, a real electronics supply store moved in between. It was only there a few years, but that was all I needed to complete transition from Electronics Geekdom to an exciting new world of Computers, Cars, Women, and College.

For the next 3 decades, I was only vaguely aware that Radio Shack existed. A friend of mine moved Up North and got a job in QA at Sprague Electronics (he was a few years older than I, and out of High School). He wrote software and configured hardware to test their integrated circuit production. On a visit with him, he said he had found de-branded Sprague components carded at Radio Shack, with wildly broad specifications. I had already compared my Dad’s spec sheets to Radio Shacks and realized just how bad their tolerances really were, so his story made perfect sense.

I remember only 3 visits in the past 30 years. I needed to expand my home network immediately, and purchased some ThinNet (10Base2) 50 Ohm terminators for some high price. I nearly didn’t complete the sale because of aggressive begging for my personal information. I was walking out when the salesdrone relented to complete the sale without my phone number and address. In the not-too-early days of Hi Def TV I stopped in for an HDMI cable. I took one look at the $49.95 price and walked out, a salesperson hot on my heels. During the transition from feature phones to smart phones we stopped by to compare plans and the sales guy was quite knowledgable… but they offered nothing there that the carrier stores didn’t.

So good-bye Rip Shack, and good riddance. I won’t miss you.

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