Last month, I read an article that predicted the impending demise of Radio Shack. The author even suggested that 2014 would probably be the last Christmas season for the legendary electronics chain.
In a way, I’ll be sad to see it go. I won’t miss it – the Radio Shack that I remember disappeared years ago – but I’ll miss what it used to be.
First, a little corporate history: Radio Shack’s parent company was called the Tandy Corporation. The Canadian Radio Shack stores were managed by a subsidiary of Tandy, called InterTAN (International Tandy). In 2004, InterTAN was acquired by Circuit City, and in 2005, all Canadian Radio Shack stores were renamed The Source By Circuit City. Today, they’re simply called The Source. I must admit, I don’t shop at The Source very often because they are now just like any other electronics chain.
However, the Radio Shack of my youth was remarkable – it was a hobbyist’s paradise, and I’ve missed its absence for years. The Radio Shack of the 1970s and early 1980s was more than just an electronics store; it represented a particular way of life and catered to a consumer who has all but disappeared: the hobbyist, the tinkerer and the DIY enthusiast.
When I was growing up, our family stereo system was consisted of a Heathkit amplifier (pictured, above), a Heathkit FM tuner, a Gerrard turntable and some speakers that were built into the wall of my father’s den. I found out later that Heathkit wasn’t merely another audio store brand. Heathkit was a company that sold audio and other equipment in kit form. You browsed their catalogue, and either visited their store or ordered your item. The kit consisted of the parts, plus a schematic and a detailed instruction guide. You had to supply the soldering iron, solder, multimeter and any necessary tools. Except for the turntable, my father had built the family’s stereo system himself, which I found quite impressive, and a little humbling.
During the 1960s, a company like Heathkit could thrive because it wasn’t unreasonable to expect a consumer to possess a rudimentary knowledge of electronics, soldering iron basics, schematic diagram interpretation, and (given the proper instructions) basic assembly skills for something as complex as an amplifier or FM tuner. Sadly, Heathkit no longer exists – it stopped making kits in 1992.
During the 1970s, consumer hobbyist were still in abundance, and Radio Shack was the store that catered to them. During thr late 1970s, I used to love visiting Radio Shack, I would always grab a copy of their annual catalogue, and I would read it over and over again during the following months, practically memorizing everything in it. When I was a teenager, and was old enough to have audio equipment in my room, I remember buying a “colour organ” there. Mine was the 3-Channel model, pictured on the right. A colour organ was attached to the audio output of a stereo system, and flashed lights of various colours that were synchronized with the music – the louder the sound, the brighter the light. I used red for bass, green for midrange and blue for treble. The colour organ came in a kit form, and I had to solder the components onto the circuit board myself, as well as wire the lights inside the cabinet. I haven’t used it for many years, but I still have that colour organ stored away in my closet – I was very proud of it, and just can’t bring myself to throw it out.
I also remember my parents buying me Radio Shack’s 75-In-One Electronic Project Kit. It was a breadboard with a bunch of components mounted onto it – resistors, capacitors, diodes, transistors, along with a transformer, speaker, relay, battery and even a solar cell. There was also a large user’s guide that described each of the 75 projects: what they did, the electrical and electronic principles that made them work, and how to build each one. I remember building a crystal radio, and I was so amazed that I could hear AM radio stations (using a mono earbud, since the output wasn’t strong enough to move a speaker cone) from something that didn’t use a power source. It seemed like magic!
The Radio Shack staff members during the 1970s and 1980s were also very knowledgeable. If I needed some parts for a project I was working on, I could simply ask for a 10-ohm resistor or a 100-µF (microfarad) capacitor, and the salesperson would know exactly what I meant. The stereo sales staff were knowledgeable, not just about the product line, but about audio itself. If you were confused about the differences between Class-A and Class-B amplifiers, then they could enlighten you.
Radio Shack didn’t just sell electronics – a good chunk of their product line was geared toward hobbyists and encouraged learning and exploration. Radio Shack’s customers didn’t merely consume – they built things, they experimented and they let their imagination run free. In my blog post What Happened to the Technical Stereo Consumer , I lament the dumbing down of stereo advertising during the past couple of decades. Stereo magazines of the 1970s and 1980s used to assume that the consumer knew a great deal about audio; today’s advertising contains almost no useful technical information.
Today, consumer electronics have become commoditized, and planned obsolescence seems to be an inherent part of almost every company’s business plan. New models of smartphones are introduced each year, yet the differences between these models are (in my opinion) negligible. The electronics kits are long gone, and manufacturers now actively discourage experimentation. Many printer ink cartridges have chips embedded in them to prevent customers from refilling the cartridges themselves. Apple uses proprietary screws in their products to prevent customers from even opening the case and peeking inside. Batteries are often sealed into portable devices and are categorized as “not user replaceable”. Think about that for a minute: two generations ago, we built our own stereo equipment; today, some companies don’t even want us to replace the batteries ourselves!
If the author’s prediction comes true, then I’m going to miss Radio Shack – not so much for what it is today, since its Canadian version is just like every other electronics chain – but for what it used to be in my youth. Radio Shack didn’t merely sell merchandise; it sold you the tools and components that allowed you to realize your ideas.