Why I'll Miss Weird RadioShack

You've got questions about RadioShack's relevance. I've got answers.

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Feb 8 2015, 2:00pm

Image: ​​Image: ​Thomas Hart / Flickr

There is a RadioShack near my house where I'll go whenever I need a cable. I don't remember if I've ever needed a cable, actually. But it is a comfort to know that this little electronics shop is there, just in case, rather than, for instance, another artisanal general goods shoppe or another cell phone store. Not for long, though. Under the terms of RadioShack's bankruptcy, the company intends to ​close half of its stores and, if all goes as planned, turn the rest over to Sprint, which will be the primary brand in a new Sprint/RadioShack chain of phone-focused stores, or something like that. That's the optimistic view at least. 

"We're supposed to be closed in six weeks," one employee at my store told me yesterday. By summer, he said, RadioShack as we know it will be over. With it, his and 27,000 other people's jobs will be imperiled. (About a fifth of RadioShack's roughly 5,000 stores worldwide are run by ​independent franchisees, who may choose to stay open under different names). "It's just a job," he said, "but I was at RadioShack for a long time, so it's kind of... weird." 

There's something fitting in RadioShack's being swallowed by Sprint. In its later years, RadioShack also entered the mobile phone market, except that no one needed another mobile phone store. Increasingly, apparently, no one needed another electronics store either. In 2003, Amazon and RadioShack each had about $5 billion in sales. A decade later, RadioShack sold about $3.5 billion worth of stuff. Amazon: $75 billion. 

Sure, sales are one way to measure value, but I'd argue for a more intangible value: the kind that comes with being able to browse a physical store—the serendipitous discovery that comes from going to the library or the book shop. I may not have needed a cable, but if I did I could go and touch them and see which one was the right one. Unlike Amazon, my RadioShack was physical: A space that you could walk into and pick up and touch and compare things and find the widget you needed, and if you made a mistake, returning things was easy. Say you bought a ​mobile phon​e beanbag and realized your mistake: You had weeks to walk back to the store and return it. No mailing the thing back, no questions asked.

Image: Michael Raso

Radioshack didn't have questions. You did, and they had answers. Maybe, sometimes. Long after the company had shifted away from the niche hobbyist electronics market and toward the miasma of Consumer Electronics™, it hired its last CEO, a man named Joe Magnacca, away from Walgreen. In a last ditch effort to save the enterprise, Magnacca announced a new plan for stores called "Let's Play!" (Note the sense of joviality in the midst of a fiscal emergency.) 

The idea of "Let's Play" was to turn the retailer a "neighborhood technology playground." This involved a streamlining of the stores and, naturally, the introduction of walls of Bluetooth speakers. Recognizing RadioShack's pedigree, at hundreds of locations, Magnacca added "Fix It Here," an on-site repair program for mobile gadgets. Many stores even sold many of the ingredients for a hackerspace; there were sections devoted to products by Arduino and MAKE and LittleBits. For a time, they had a booth at Maker Faire and even sold tickets to the show at their stores. Look around a BestBuy and you can learn a lot about Technology®. Go to a RadioShack and you might learn something about electronics.

Or you might learn how weird electronics are. Just being able to browse a store—versus, say, browsing a website—lets you discover things you didn't know existed. During a recent visit, I purchased a thumb drive in the shape of a character from the TV show "The Big Bang Theory." I haven't watched the show except a bit on airplanes, but I admit I was delighted by the sheer improbability of a flash drive that looked like a Happy Meal toy version of an IT guy. More recently, RadioShack carried a touch of the SkyMall (also, RIP): beanbags for your smartphone, LED doodads for your shoelaces, mustache flash drives. Another recent improbable RadioShack find: a pair of RadioShack gloves, the kind that you can use with a touchscreen. Yes, there are RadioShack gloves.

Image: the author

"There was no way I was going to risk my life over a toy." 

The Robbery

You might think that the perpetual, impending sense of doom hanging over the business would contribute to a feeling of emergency, or at least a kind of energy, in the store. But I only felt it once. 

Just before Christmas, after purchasing a memory card I realized I didn't need, I marched back to return it. (RadioShack had a great return policy.) I had last seen the store's two employees idly roaming aisles, restocking cell phone cases and batteries. Now, though, they were on guard behind the register, frozen, anxious, shocked, like they had just seen a ghost. They had been robbed.

They said a man had rushed in, pulled a small knife, and declared that his kids needed a remote controlled car for Christmas, and that he was going to take that car, and then he did, and he fled.

One of the staffers was already on the phone with headquarters (I imagined a windowless beige office in Fort Worth, crammed full with lots of little portable battery chargers) explaining what had happened. "There was no way I was going to risk my life over a toy," the other one said, her eyes still fixed on the door. The police, about six of them, then filed in to take down details, and I realized this was the busiest I had ever seen my RadioShack. Soon a few cops were just roaming around, aimlessly browsing through whole eras of electronics.

Sometimes, I admit, I browsed these basic technological provisions too out of sheer curiosity. Think of RadioShack as a kind of museum: A showcase of the bizarre crap that makes up our electronic world, and maybe, if you squinted, a monument to of a faded era when our technology was something you could take apart and fix and even understand how it worked. "The less we're inclined to know about our devices," Mark Svenvold writes in the latest issue of Popular Science, echoing a growing sentiment these days, "the more beholden we are to the manufacturers that make them, and the more we offer control to those who, for good or ill, know more than we do."

My RadioShack wasn't just a throwback to a more personal, democratic kind of technology—the kind you fixed or built personally—but to a more human experience. The reliable emptiness of my RadioShack was comforting, relaxing. Unlike the places that we tend to shop for electronics, there was no loud row of televisions; there was no sapphire glass flourish or celebrity event. The employees were dressed in a normcore gray. They didn't assault me when I walked in; they welcomed me, maybe with an air of resignation, but often with a smile. 

Given that RadioShack was going out of business for a long a time, the shop's persistence stopped making sense, but that didn't make it completely useless: it offered little things that you might need, someday, maybe, and let you actually touch things that increasingly can only be found on the internet. The quaintness of the name was comforting. In the 1920s, the company was named for the small wooden structure on ships that held radio equipment. It may have been the laughing stock of the retail world, but you could also see this image as corporate kitsch, a kind of running joke, or maybe even, I like to think, a giant troll.

Say what you will about RadioShack's ​business model, about its name, about its other name​About its obsolescence. I admired its tenacity, and what might be, for lack of a better explanation, its...sense of civic duty. It was a business, but it had become so unthinkable as a business that it seemed to persist out of a dedication to an idea, a neighborly commitment, I imagined, to providing your basic electronic provisions: batteries, multimeters, remotes, adapters. Resistors, circuit boards, el wire, soldering irons.

This is not a particularly noble kind of civic duty, of course, but it might have been. There might have been a chance to actually turn stores into some kind of hackerspaces. Instead, as Joshua Brustein noted, the stores ironically missed the very trend they had started, slipping into Best Buy Lite mode, trumpeting Samsungs and Beats. The emphasis on repair, on making and fixing broken things, was tucked into a corner at the back of the store.  

In 2013, the motto changed to "It Can Be Done, When We Do It Together," which, as corporate slogans go, both a thing of inspirational poster beauty and a kind of oath full of uncertainty and desperation.

Internet Killed The RadioShack

You could see the bankruptcy of RadioShack as a metaphor for what's happened to the world—melting into air, into the cloud, into rising rents—an increasingly virtual reality where we have most of the technology we want in one box in our pockets, where the companies with the most money are the ones that traffic in nothing more tangible than our data. 

In the digital garbosphere where everything is New™ and everything is "free" and nothing is real, there was something poetic about a place that conjured a kind of cozy, analog experience. It may not have been the first place you'd go to buy some shiny new thing, but rather the place you'd go if something had gone missing (the remote, an adapter) or something had stopped working (multimeter, batteries). 

Image: ​Nicholas Eckhart

"We should definitely talk more, because I think we have a lot in common."

Recently, a week before the bankruptcy was announced, I was in my RadioShack to return a wireless keyboard I thought I needed (nope), and in a moment of idle curiosity, I asked a question. 

In the olden days, maybe the question posed at a RadioShack register was something about resistors or transistors or cables. Mine was simple, dumb even, but something in me wanted to see a flash of the old RadioShack, the one that had answers. 

"So, what's the most popular portable speaker?" I asked.

The salesman peered over at the speaker wall, thought about it, and then led me over for a demo. We talked for about ten minutes about the ins and outs of speakers, what makes them powerful, which ones were weak in the bass. Another concern: battery life. The Auvio was popular, he said, but I thought it sounded pretty lame compared to the JBL speakers. He agreed. He was serious and he knew what he was talking about, which are rare commodities not just among salespeople but more generally in Williamsburg. He also let me in on a little secret: that the JBL headphones are superior to the comparable Beats headphones, except they're a lot cheaper. "Fashion is expensive," I said. Juan concurred. 

Eventually, he turned away from the speakers and looked right at me and the corners of his mouth curled up and he said: "You know, we should definitely talk more, because I think we have a lot in common."

If that sounds creepy, it wasn't. It was endearing and genuine: an attempt at connection. We exchanged names—his was Juan—and I asked when he was on duty, and told him I would come back soon and that we should chat more. This sort of thing, I imagined, would never have happened in another electronics store.

Also, another customer had come in, so this may also have been Juan's gentle way to end our conversation and attend to this rare occasion. He ambled over to the customer and asked if he had any questions. Nope, the customer said. He was just looking.

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