The Under Appreciated, Iconic Store of the Maker Movement (Is Radio Shack. Really!)

RadioShack may seem like the punchline of a joke these days – just another sad, outdated chain like Blockbuster, Circuit City, or (gasp) Linens ‘N Things. 

But the gadget and electronic retailer actually occupies a mythical place in American retailing and in the history of the DIY movement — long before it was ever trendy to be a “maker.”

The once-proud chain attracted a motley crew of hobbyists, nerdy inventor-types, early adopters and more recently, impatient shoppers for whom Amazon Prime wasn’t fast enough. Its stores were impressively crammed with motherboards and soldering irons, switches and splitters, hard-to-find cables and wires. No two locations were ever the same, giving each a neighborhood-y air about it.

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(RadioShack in its heyday. Photo: humanoidhistory.tumblr.com)

It’s fair to say that there may never be a national chain like RadioShack again. Earlier this month, the bankrupt company sold off more than $50 million worth of locations in California, Texas and Maryland to satisfy creditors. While more than 1,700 of its 4,000 stores remain open under new owner Standard General LP, which has vowed to keep the storied brand alive, the RadioShack that we remember is likely gone.

Truth is, RadioShack has been in a slo-mo death spiral for nearly 20 years now. But news of its bankruptcy filing in February prompted a wave of nostalgia across the Web (whose arrival ironically sped up its demise). WIRED magazine ran an appreciation titled, “Dear RadioShack, This Is Why We Adored You. Loved, WIRED.” After the Chapter 11 filing, Fast Company technology editor Harry McCracken wrote that he should have had an obituary ready for the 94-year-old company, but “as someone who’s cared about RadioShack for most of my life, I couldn’t bear to confront the bad news until it actually happened.”

(More recently, RadioShack seems more like another mediocre cell phone store. Credit: AP)

What many people have forgotten is that the RadioShack once stood at the center of the electronics revolution. It did more to introduce the era of personal computing into American homes than Apple when it began selling the TRS-80 microcomputer, one of the first mass-market PCs, in 1977. It was one of the first retailers to offer a mobile phone. And, of course, it catered to DIY-tinkerers decades before the current maker movement.

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Photo: The TRS-80 microcomputer debuts at RadioShack in 1977 (Associated Press).

Paul Levinson, a media expert at Fordham University and author of “New New Media,” fondly recalls buying one of the first laptops on the market at a RadioShack in upstate New York. Introduced in 1983, the TRS-80 Model 100 boasted an 8-bit processor and an LCD screen rather than the bulky black and white RCA TV that came with earlier desktop versions.

“The M100 revolutionized my life because I was always traveling to conferences,” said Levinson, who writes frequently about the intersection of tech and media. “I delighted on taking it with me on planes, and doing crucial writing, and uploading at 300baud (yes, 300 bps) as soon as I got to my hotel or destination. In retrospect, this was the very beginning of what so many of us do today with our smartphones.  For the M100 alone, RadioShack is an often unacknowledged pioneer in the personal computer revolution.”

Besides computers in the 1980s and CB radios in the 1970s, what drew a steady stream of customers was the retailer’s extensive inventory of electronic doodads. It was a paradise of gadgetry that few stores could match and left many a kid in awe and inspired.

Helen Greiner’s obsession with making a real-life R2-D2 led her to RadioShack and then to MIT, where she got degrees in electrical and mechanical engineering, and computer science. She later founded iRobot, a company that has put everyday robotics in homes with its popular Roomba cleaner.

“My dad and I took BASIC lessons at RadioShack,” Greiner recalled in an interview with Medium’s Back Channel, “and I learned how to store programs on the TRS-80’s cassette drive. Believe it or not, that’s how you stored your programs back then. But it was that cassette drive that showed me the connections between programming and mechanical elements — essential stepping stones in my robotics education.”

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Photo: RadioShack employees in Butler, New Jersey (Michael Raso/Flickr)

The chain was also an audiophile’s heaven where you could buy 8-track players, amplifiers and home theater speakers.

“RadioShack not only offered these individual components, but the heavy-gauge speaker wire, customization platforms and aftermarket add-ons that no other retailer did at scale,” said Jeremy Cohen, co-founder and general manager of The Talent Studios, an executive search firm. “As a result, they gained a loyalty like no other in the consumer electronics space.”

For Chuck Whiteman, a DJ in high school, the store was a godsend.

“RadioShack was awesome!” remembered Whiteman, now senior vice president for client services at MotionPoint Corp., which manages globalized websites for clients in dozens of industries. “I was always in there grabbing something. RadioShack was incredibly convenient for anyone who had a need to connect stereo equipment, TVs or any other kind of electronic components together. They stocked all sorts of pieces and parts that no one else had.”

Unfortunately for the venerable retailer, the rise of e-commerce quickly eroded its lock on this “convenient/deep assortment” niche, Whiteman said. Web-based retailers such as Amazon could supply a nearly endless inventory of hard-to-find components — but at a lower cost than RadioShack. Electronic components also became a commodity with overseas manufacturing, and fewer people needed wired audio equipment as wireless devices took over, Cohen noted.

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Photo: Another RadioShack closing in South Beach (Phillip Pessar/Flickr)

P.K. Kannan, a professor of marketing science at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, said RadioShack was ultimately doomed by a confluence of events: changing consumer habits (more time spent on mobile phones meant less time for hobbies and other gadgets) and the seismic shift to e-commerce. The retailer also made mistakes: It was slow to exploit online channels and it shifted its focus away from the items that fueled its once-explosive growth —chargers, batteries and other consumable electronics. Consumers who had an “acute need” for these things were willing to pay more, generating high margins for RadioShack, Kannan said.

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“It is the acute need that is key — like the few times that I had run to RadioShack to buy electrical adapters before my flight to Europe or Asia where the plug-ins are different and I needed the adapters immediately to take with me.  Or the time I went running to RadioShack with my son in tow as we had to finish a science project he was working on and needed wires to make the circuit complete. For such acute needs, I had to go to RadioShack and they made a lot of money off of me.”

As RadioShack pushed the electronic toys, gadgets and DIY kits to the back of the store in favor of flashier mobile phone displays up front, Kannn said, the chain lost its roots.

Ironically, RadioShack’s bankruptcy probably saved it from an even worst fate, at least in the minds of loyal hobbyists — it never became Best Buy or any of the other big box stores.

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