No More Questions, No More Answers

I got up this morning and girded myself for battle as only a man of 60-odd must do.

I fed the cat.  I sat down at the rowing machine for 500 strokes, making sure to fully flex my lower back as I rowed.  I  stretched for 20 minutes.  I popped a couple of anti-inflammatory pills.  I ate a breakfast strong in protein and fiber.  And at last: I was ready to move heavy objects with some hope that my joints or spine would take no subsequent revenge.

Getting old is a process of constant negotiation with your own body.  When I was young, I could do what I wanted with it.  Now, my body has the whip hand. If I want to lift heavy objects, we have to talk.

Today’s heavy objects were store fixtures from a dying Radio Shack: big roll-around shelving units made from heavy-gauge steel.  They’re just what my wife Rhumba needs to build the crafting studio of her retirement dreams in our garage.  And they had to be out of the Shack by 5 pm, when it would close its doors forever.

Those suckers were huge, too. I had no idea how I’d load them into the pick-up I’d rented.  But  I drove over to the store and hoped for the best.  After all, things are never as bad as they seem they’ll be, unless they’re worse.

I backed the truck up against the entrance of the store and went in.  Locusts had stripped the place: nothing left but cables, batteries, and 90 PERCENT OFF banners.  It was going to be weird not having a Radio Shack around.  It’s that store you seldom go anymore but know that you’ll need at some point, for a cable or a coupler or even a resistor.  And now it’s gone.

I grew up with Radio Shack.  I never made friends with electricity, but I had my battery club card and bought my cassette tapes there. It was always the source of strange electrical gadgets and somewhat educational toys that made bleeping noises or just raced around in circles under remote control.  Whatever was electronic — components, TVs, music keyboards, test equipment, computers — they had.  It might be cheap and no-name, but they had it.

And sometimes, they had it first.  In the late 70s when personal computers were still expensive and mostly build-it-yourself, Radio Shack’s cheap TRS-80 computers were the first computers your average family could afford.

We called them Trash-80s, and they weren’t much.  But they got a generation of young people — and not so young — learning to code while Rupert Holmes crooned the Pina Colada song on the family stereo. A couple of years later Radio Shack rolled out the TRS-100, the very first portable computer worth a damn; some call it the very first laptop.  They sold like shaved iced in Hell.

And then the Shack went into IBM-compatibles and software, but still sold supplies and equipment for the home electrical dabbler,  plus light-up My Child’s First Circuit educational toys, and music systems and video and telephones and every damn thing.  A hole-in-the-wall Radio Shack might not count for much in the big city.  But in the nameless suburbs of America, it just might be the only game in town.

Radio Shack stores weren’t always wonderful; but if you looked hard enough, you could usually find somebody who knew what was what. They might be 18 and geeky, but who else would be genuinely interested in helping you pick the right video cable? At minimum wage? Some of those young people went on to manage data centers and networks, design chips, and write the code that America runs on.

Radio Shack rode the tech waves for decades, but they missed out on smartphones. Bad mistake. And of course e-commerce hit them hard. And now, seventeen years and two bankruptcies into the new millenium, the local Radio Shack was going down, and hundreds of others with it.  The only people in the store when I walked in today were there to strip it.

Like me.  The shelving units we’d picked out had been put aside for me. They were even larger and heavier-looking than I remembered.  “How are you going to load them?” the assistant manager asked.  He was a brisk young man, hairless but for a severely trimmed beard.

That was a good question. “I don’t know,” I said.  “Roll them out there, tip them up over the tailgate and hope for the best, I guess.’

“They do come apart,”  he said, and produced a screwdriver. And he spent the next five minutes showing me the basics.  I took over, but he came back to help several times between other duties.  It was honest-to-God classic Radio Shack service even as the ship went down.  The store manager wandered over to remind me that I could have ten removable shelves with each unit.  Then he wandered away, only to wander back again and tell me to take as many shelves as I wanted.

The assistant manager even helped me load the truck.  For my back’s sake it was good that we’d taken the display units apart, because even some of the pieces weighed 50 or 60 pounds.  Soon the pickup was full to the brim with miscellaneous metal crap, and my back remained happy.  Reassembling all those heavy components later would prove to be the real hell.  But I made it, and my back and body kept the deal we’d struck that morning.

It’s not that this town will actually suffer for Radio Shack’s absence.  We have a perfectly good electronics store a mile or so down the road.  It’s more on the serious side, but its employees will gladly tell newbies more than they’d ever want to know about anything electronic.  They’ll even build you a computer from scratch.

And the gigantic Best Buy next to the Home Depot will sell you any consumer electronics you want, from computers and peripherals to smart phones (and dumb ones) to music players to DVDs and even appliances and solar panels.  There are even geeks to help you with the stuff you bought — though you have to pay to see them.

But Radio Shack was an excellent starting point, where real electronics and cheap thrills overlapped. A lot of kids rich and poor made the transition from toys to tech at the Shack.  Now they’re left with e-commerce, which will sllt you anything you want, but can’t tell you why you should want it — or help you figure out what you bought.

To me, the real paradigm of retail is a pile of physical merchandise to handle, a counter, and a clerk who knows what they’re doing and what questions to ask.  The “best buy” is the one that gets you what you really need, with all the service included in the price.

And if that paradigm is simply outmoded, why is it still there for high-end stores and high-end products — but not for the rest of us?

2 thoughts on “No More Questions, No More Answers

  1. lk

    Hey Jim,

    I’ll miss Radio Shack too. They were the shop I bought my tv antenna rotator from every few years. I’ll be damned if I’ll shop Fry’s – that place gives me the creeps!

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      I agree about Fry’s. RS had kind of gone downhill, but this is a college town and there were usually some helpful student geeks behind the counter. Aside from that, about 1000 of the stores are franchises who’ve had a great deal of leeway in the way they run their businesses. It’s thought that most of them will stay around — just find another distributor, rebrand themselves Silicon Hunt or something, and march onward.

      Reply

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