Saturday, February 28, 2015

Taking the Blame

It's not that I wouldn't like to dodge the blame. After all, I could site the pernicious influence of the big box stores like WalMart and Target. And it's easy to say that the ease of shopping at Amazon is a factor. For sure, the internet itself is a major culprit, offering you the ability to compare prices while standing in the store. Taken together, that's a one, two, three punch that laid low a string of brick and mortar retailers of gear and media, from Circuit City to Blockbuster to Virgin Megastores.

But even if it's not all on my shoulders, I still have to accept a solid heaping of "guilty" for the demise of poor old Radio Shack.

You see, everyone likes to think there are masters of something. Some guys were into cars, and on a first name basis with the guys at Pep Boys. Others were lawn and garden aficionados, and could wax poetically about mulch. Still others were grill meisters, with special tools and tricks that turned chicken breasts into works of edible art. Me? I dabbled in all of those a bit, but was a rank amateur at best. But when it came to tech, I was a tinkerer of the first order.

Rarely a week went by that didn't find myself at my local Radio Shack, buying a little this or that. A ganged potentiometer to use as a stereo volume control for a speaker extension box. A quarter inch plug and a mini stereo jack to make a custom headphone extension. A roll of 14-gauge dual strand copper wire and an on-off switch to make a remote light controller. And too many to count RJ11 jacks and F connectors to extend phones and TV antennas to exactly where I wanted them to be.

True, none of them were big ticket items, the kind that generate fat margins and big profits. I would occasionally buy something that costs more than a buck or two, maybe an amplifier or power supply. But for the big stuff, be it a TV or stereo or computer, I usually wound up at a Crazy Eddie or Nobody Beats the Wiz or CompUSA, to name 3 more casualties of the internet revolution. For that, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

On top of that, the name didn't help. I recall hearing an executive of a major corporation discussing the difficulty of naming a new retail chain they were developing. He said it had to mean something to the consumer, and also endure the test of time. As a cautionary tale, he cited Radio Shack, noting that perhaps the name made sense at one time, but they no longer sold radios, nor wanted to be thought of as a shack.  

Still, in spite of all that, I was a loyal customer. But as everything started to become infested with computer chips, and the workings of almost every electric and electronic consumable became more opaque, it got harder and harder to mod it or fix it. More than once I can home from work to find a note from my wife that something stopped working. I unscrewed its cover hoping to find a burned out switch or disconnected wire. Instead, I found a chip that looked like, well, a chip. Nothing in my single college class of solid state physics prepared me to do anything more than know there was a transistor (or 20 or 200) inside. Fix it? Not on my watch.

And so my visits to my local store slowed, then turned to a trickle. The last time I went, which is now several years ago, the front of the store was crowded with cell phones, with MP3 players and tablets just behind it. The section for switches and wires had shrunk to a tiny limited selection in the back corner. "DIY" had become a new spelling for "die."

For sure, there are many reasons a store fails, with some wounds being self-inflicted, while other factors are beyond its control. Overexpansion and poor financial management can be just as damaging as market shifts and the vagaries of style. But in this case, it's also partly on me. However, in my defense, the old girl had changed. To paraphrase the Irish song, farewell Radio Shack, but the way you look today, we hardly knew ye.


Marc Wollin of Bedford still keeps a box of wires and switches in his workshop. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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