Special author’s note: The March 19 Off Grid Ham article mentioned Radio Shack only as a minor side story. So many readers commented about their experiences with the fabled electronics retailer that I thought it was worthwhile to address the topic in more detail. I wrote the following article for another blog in 2015. It has been edited & updated for republishing here. ©2015 ©2021
A true legend. radio shack
Radio Shack has been on the register of lost legends for several years now, and I’m still saddened by it. First, because it was a key player in my choosing to go into electronics professionally. Second, because it has no replacement. It was the only one of its breed; there is no heir to continue the legacy. Half-serious prophecies of a big comeback occasionally float around, but no one truly believes it will happen. Founded in 1921, yet another thread in the colorful fabric of America went the way of the vacuum tube and Betamax tapes.
Days of my youth. radio shack
In its heyday, Radio Shack was 7500 stores strong. It was a wonderland of electronic components, parts, tools, batteries, kits, how-to books, wire, connectors, and everything else. When I was growing up in Naperville, Illinois, there were three of them within minutes of my house. Sheesh, there was only one McDonald’s restaurant in Naperville at the time.
As a young person I would stop at “the Shack” at least once a week, oftentimes more, eager to drop my paltry teenage income on electronic goodies. If not for the readily available supply of raw materials for my dorky passion I might have become an insurance salesman…not that there’s anything wrong with that, but no young kid dreams of being an insurance salesman.
My best buddy at the time, Andy, lived within walking distance of a Radio Shack. I was envious. Andy was the most technically skilled in my circle of geek friends and he hit “the Shack” even more often than I did. It was a big deal when the new catalog came out every year and we’d spend hours picking through it. I lost track of Andy after high school and don’t know what career path he took, but I’ll bet he isn’t selling insurance either.
It was the only place in the world where I could get a PNP transistor on a Sunday afternoon. And I often needed one, among other things. I’ve built transmitters and power supplies and countless experiments entirely from parts purchased off the shelf at Radio Shack. They sold me the very first test instrument I bought with my own money –an analog multimeter– which I still own and use. Long before I ever set foot inside of a college engineering lab I had a strong electronics education from “Radio Shack University.”
A fuse that took years to blow. radio shack
The quirky retailer that helped me turn a boyhood fascination with electronics into a lucrative and lengthy career as an adult was swirling the toilet for years before it finally expired. It was painful to watch. The world moved on and Radio Shack kept changing lanes until the road, or rather, the money, ran out. They tried reinventing themselves. First as a computer shop, then a consumer electronics repair vendor, a high end audio dealer, a cellphone emporium, and in a final desperate grasp for relevance, on-site smartphone & tablet computer repair. None of it reversed the inevitable and easily predictable dirtnap.
RS still technically exists in the form of an unremarkable e-commerce website and a few physical dealers located inside other businesses. It exists, yes, but just barely and without even a tiny speck of the original soul and gusto. The Best Buys and Amazons of the world rolled right over them. We cannot blame changing tastes or use the tired trope, “no one wants to build anything anymore!” All the cool stuff RS used to offer is still available from other sellers, and it would seem, they are doing well.
The last time I shopped at Radio Shack was to buy a specialty electrical connector. The writing was literally on the walls. What used to be hundreds of square feet of components & supplies had been shaved down to one small section shoved into the corner of the store as an afterthought. Apparently, they needed to make room for cellphone accessories, toys, and cheesy gadgets. You know, the kind of everyday crap that can be bought at any of a million other places. It wasn’t fun or unique anymore. That was the moment I knew it was over.
No one is totally guilty, and no one is totally innocent.
I hate to admit it, but I’m part of the reason Radio Shack is now just a happy recollection of another time. We all are. Better & cheaper sources for supplies came along and we took the bait (hellooo, internet!). It’s very difficult to turn a profit selling small quantities of diodes and capacitors, much less with the overhead of a mall storefront. Did I let an old friend down, or did the old friend let me down? It’s a trick question: Old friends sometimes drift apart and it’s not really anyone’s fault.
I’m not sure if anything could have saved Radio Shack. They served their market well since the early days of electronics and their time had passed. Maybe in that way it’s not their fault they ended up in terminal decline. It’s just the natural cycle of things. I hope my departed retail friend knows generations of geeks are grateful to them for supplying the seeds for what would grow into fulfilling lifetime hobbies and careers.